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Attorney General of the United States Eric Holder, center, speaks at the Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn as U.S. Attorneys B. Todd Jones, left, and Brendan V. Johnson listen on Wednesday, July 27, 2011, in Rapid City. (Ryan Soderlin/Journal staff)

Standing before nine tribal flags in Rapid City, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged Congress on Wednesday to pass legislation designed to combat domestic violence against Native American women.

The nation’s chief law enforcement officer vowed his personal commitment, as the father of two girls, to end the “shocking and unacceptable” scourge of domestic violence.

“Too much is at stake. Too many lives are at risk,” Holder said at the conclusion of a day-long listening session on public safety in tribal communities. “To me, no challenge is more important than protecting women and girls in Indian tribal communities.”

Portrayed by Holder as a “robust government to government” dialogue, the listening sessions with tribal leaders from South Dakota were attended by more than 30 U.S. Attorneys and their staffs as part of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee  and its Native American Issues Subcommittee, which is chaired by Brendan V. Johnson, the U.S. Attorney for the South Dakota District.

The historic visit by Holder included a contingent of Secret Service agents who stood guard around the Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn conference room. Today, he will lay a wreath at the Wounded Knee Memorial site on the Pine Ridge Reservation, following another listening session there.

Holder’s Department of Justice wants to close legal gaps in the prosecution of domestic violence offenders on reservations. Those cases often overwhelm law enforcement agencies on the nine reservations in South Dakota and the proposed legislation would, among other things, allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Native perpetrators who are charged with abusing their Native wives or girlfriends on a reservation.

Nationwide, more than 50 percent of married Native women have non-Native husbands, Holder said.  The Justice Department reports that one-third of all Native women will be raped in their lifetimes, that three out of five have been assaulted by a spouse or boyfriend and that they become murder victims at a rate 10 times the national average.

The proposed law, in addition to giving tribal police more authority to stop domestic violence when and where it occurs, would also strengthen criminal sentences for certain acts of domestic assault.

“What I’m going to remember about today is how real it was,” said Johnson, recalling the testimony of a 13-year-old sexual assault victim and the comments from overworked, understaffed police officers.

Throughout the day, public safety officers, crime victims and other tribal leaders from each of the state’s tribes offered their perspectives on violence on their reservations. Rosebud Sioux Police Chief Grace Her Many Horses, the first female police chief in the history of that tribe, wore two hats at Wednesday’s event. She was part of the opening ceremonies as an enthusiastic and athletic traditional Lakota shawl dancer, leading RST President Rodney Bordeaux to joke that, “If I ever break the law, I don’t want her chasing me.”

Lower Brule Tribal Chairman Michael Jandreau prefaced his blunt remarks with an apology but told Justice Department staffers that “beautiful ideals flow out of the mouths of people in a position to make a difference … but no difference is made.”

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On his small reservation, “there is no belief that justice is real. Justice must be real, fair and unpolitical,” he said. “I find all those factors are grossly violated on our reservation.”

After 32 years as tribal chairman of Lower Brule, Jandreau said the reality of the criminal justice systems on state reservations is still inadequate funding, lack of contract support services and a fragmented approach to the court system.

Improvement doesn’t happen because of a lack of oversight, budget loopholes and money, staff and resources that never arrive as promised, he said.

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Other tribal law enforcement leaders pointed to a long list of Justice Department and tribal partnerships that they say are slowly addressing many public safety issues, including Johnson’s Community Prosecution Strategy.

Holder met privately with tribal leaders before his public remarks, and he responded to complaints about inadequate funding of the Tribal Law and Order Act, passed one year ago, by acknowledging that “significant challenges and serious obstacles remain.”

“I am not naive,” he said about calls for more funding of the federal government’s trust responsibility for tribal safety. “I am not yet satisfied. The president of the United States is not yet satisfied.”

Mindful of what he called a “painful history of government promises in Indian Country,” Holder said he knows Native people will judge him and his boss not by the “promises we make … but the result we achieve.”

“These matters he said of improving public safety on reservations. “It is something that he wants to help define his presidency.”

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

 

 

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