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Gonzales cites commitment to Indian Country

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met with Michigan tribes on Tuesday and said the Bush administration was committed to public safety on reservations.

The visit to the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians' center in Petoskey was not Gonzales' first to Indian Country. In March 2006, the head of the Department of Justice went to the Yakama Nation in Washington to talk about methamphetamine and unsolved crimes.

This time around, Gonzales focused on domestic violence, a hot issue in the wake of a recent Amnesty International report. But he also used the event to address widespread concerns that he has ignored law and safety needs on reservations, which suffer from crime rates higher than the rest of the nation.

"I came here today to learn from these leaders and listen to their suggestions, ideas, and criticisms," Gonzales said in remarks after the closed-door session with tribal leaders. "I also wanted to let the members of these tribes know that the Department of Justice is invested in the issues faced by Native Americans throughout Indian Country. And I wanted them to hear that message from me, personally."

Gonzales has come under fire for the ouster of eight U.S. Attorneys. Five of them represented districts with significant Indian Country and were prominent members of DOJ's Native American Issues Subcommittee.

Some of the former federal prosecutors have openly accused Gonzales of neglecting tribes. Paul Charlton, the former U.S. Attorney for Arizona, said "the Attorney General does not care about crime on Indian reservations" during an appearance at the National Congress of American Indians mid-year session in June.

NCAI, the largest inter-tribal organization, also expressed doubts, particularly in the wake of Congress testimony from a former aide to Gonzales. Monica Goodling, who resigned amid controversy over the firings, said she heard complaints in Washington, D.C., that former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger of Minnesota was spending "too much time on Native American issues."

"The firing of certain attorneys and the testimony regarding Mr. Heffelfinger paint a glaring picture regarding how the DOJ is handling Indian Country issues. And it is not a pretty one," said NCAI President Joe Garcia back in May.

Though Heffelfinger was not among the group that was fired -- he left in early 2006 of his own accord -- he has since criticized political appointees for their stance. "The fact that some allegedly responsible official or officials in Washington at main Justice now believe that I should have been removed for spending too much time focused on the public safety of Native Americans is outrageous, and it's shameful," he said at a law conference in May.

Heffelfinger was chair of the Native American Issues Subcommittee when he left DOJ in March 2006. His replacement -- Margaret Chiara of Western Michigan -- was among the group that was fired.

In response to these complaints, Gonzales released a "fact sheet" about law enforcement in Indian Country yesterday. It listed efforts by the Office of Tribal Justice, the U.S. Attorneys, the FBI, the Office of Justice Programs and the Civil Rights Division at DOJ to address public safety on reservations.

"The Department of Justice understands the challenges facing Indian Country and is committed to working with the tribes, state and local law enforcement, the Department of the Interior, and others to improve the lives of those living in Indian Country," the fact sheet stated.

The document did not list the department's ongoing attempts to limit its trust responsibility to tribes and individual Indians. Some cases involving treaty rights, water rights and Indian arts and craft were included.

During his visit, Gonzales announced more than $3 million in grants to several Michigan tribes. "The awards, administered through the Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP), Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), and Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), will primarily be used for crime prevention efforts, increased resources for law enforcement, and improvements to victim assistance services in Michigan’s tribal regions," he said.

The tribal meeting at the Little Traverse Bay Bands center was not open to the media. Warren Petoskey, a tribal elder and organizer of a grassroots group called Odawak for Change, said the twice-weekly elders' luncheon was canceled for Gonzales' visit.

Relevant Documents:
Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales Following Indian Country Roundtable Meeting | Fact Sheet: Justice Department Efforts in Indian Country | Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales Meets with Tribal Leaders and Announces New Funding for Tribal Communities in Michigan