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Holder says White House making Indian reservations safer, better

FNS Photo by Mike Nowatzki United Tribes Technical College Interim President Phil Baird presents a ceremonial blanket to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder after his speech Thursday at the college in Bismarck.

BISMARCK — Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday the Obama administration is keeping its promises to Native Americans by taking steps to make reservations safer, from giving tribes the power to prosecute non-natives who abuse native women to creating a task force on native children exposed to violence.

Holder delivered the keynote address to about 250 people gathered at the fourth annual Tribal Consultation Conference at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, just hours after the White House announced President Barack Obama will visit Cannon Ball on the nearby Standing Rock Indian Reservation on June 13.

“We will not shrink from even the toughest challenges. We will honor our obligations to sovereign tribes. And for all of us, this is only the beginning,” Holder said.

The Obama appointee’s visit marked the first time a sitting U.S. attorney general has visited Bismarck since Robert F. Kennedy addressed the National Congress of American Indians in September 1963.

That landmark speech marked what Kennedy called a “turning of the tide” in the federal government’s relationship with sovereign tribes, Holder said, adding Kennedy and the tribal leaders who stood with him “helped bring a long-overdue end to a dark period in our shared history.”

“And today, a new generation returns to Bismarck to reclaim the vision that our predecessors left for us,” he said.

Thursday’s conference brought together nearly 100 tribal, federal, state and local officials from law enforcement, courts and other government agencies.

Holder said the prosecution of dangerous criminals such as Valentino Bagola, who was convicted in the 2011 stabbing deaths of two children on the Spirit Lake Reservation, and law enforcement actions such as Operation Winter’s End, which has resulted in the indictment of more than 40 people accused of trafficking heroin and methamphetamine on and around the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota, show the federal government is taking a stand to improve public safety.

Jane Wolfe, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis field office that oversees North Dakota, announced at the conference that the bureau is adding a supervisory special agent position in Bismarck, which will bring its total presence in North Dakota to 18 agents and two supervisors — about double the number from five years ago. The new supervisor will be responsible for the Bismarck, Minot and Williston areas, she said.

Holder said he and Obama have made Indian country a priority since taking office in 2009.

The friendly audience broke into applause when Holder mentioned how the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act signed by Obama in March 2013 will give tribes the power to prosecute non-Indians who commit acts of domestic violence against natives on reservations. The newly granted jurisdiction takes effect next March.

Holder said the administration’s commitment is yielding positive results, with federal prosecutions of those who victimize American Indians up significantly since January 2009.

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said the North Dakota district office has made “tremendous” progress, prosecuting 98 criminal defendants in reservation cases in the last fiscal year, up 48 percent from five years ago.

Purdon, whose office organizes the conference, encouraged tribes to invest in their tribal courts as a way to make sure only the most serious offenders wind up in federal court, where they may face lengthy prison sentences if convicted. Some contend tribal members are unfairly subjected to federal sentencing guidelines that are harsher than what they would face in state court, and Purdon said he’s asked the U.S. Sentencing Commission to take a hard look at the guidelines and address disparities if they exist.

Holder shared a draft of the Justice Department’s “Statement of Principles” that it plans to use as a guide for interactions with Indian tribes.

Holder acknowledged the progress “has come in the shadow of decades of conflict and injustice” for Indian peoples.

“We gather in a spirit of partnership this afternoon. But we cannot deny this painful past,” he said.

Phil Baird, interim president of United Tribes Technical College and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe based in South Dakota, said Holder’s comments were timely given the “unprecedented” cooperation between tribal and non-tribal jurisdictions working to solve problems in Indian country.

“You have an administration admitting there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.