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Honoring the Civil Rights of Native Americans
December 3, 2012 Posted by

The following post appears courtesy of the Civil Rights Division.

Last week the Department of Justice formally recognized Native American Heritage Month with a program based on this year’s theme “Serving Our People, Serving Our Nation: Native Visions for Future Generations.”  As this month of special recognition of American Indian and Alaska Native peoples comes to a close, it is important to remember that the best way we can honor the contributions of tribal communities is through ongoing collaboration and effective enforcement of the civil rights of Native Americans throughout the country.  The department’s work in this area is a year-round effort, with the active engagement of the Civil Rights Division’s Indian Working Group.

For too long, Native Americans have experienced discrimination and injustice, and the federal government can and must stop such discrimination.  The Indian Working Group, with representatives from every section of the division, is a critical tool in that work.  This collaborative effort elevates enforcement, outreach, and educational opportunities concerning Native American issues within the division, within the department, and throughout the country. 

The Indian Working Group is just one tool within the Civil Rights Division when it comes to reducing crime and advancing public safety in Native American communities and the Division continues to increase the number of cases affecting Native Americans.

The department confronts daily challenges to the civil rights of Native Americans, including vicious assaults born of hatred, and threats used to drive Native Americans out of their homes. In parts of Indian country, rates of violent crime are two times, four times, even ten times what they are in other communities.  One in three Indian women reports having been raped.  This is profoundly disturbing, and completely unacceptable.

A core part of safe communities is an effective, accountable police department that reduces crime, ensures respect for the Constitution, and earns the trust of the public it is charged with protecting.  This summer, the department  reached a comprehensive agreement with the City of Seattle regarding the Seattle Police Department’s use of excessive force and concerns about discriminatory policing. Seattle must create a Community Police Commission and invite Native American community input on the Seattle Police Department’s training requirements and policies.

The Civil Rights Division’s first case under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was in New Mexico, where the department successfully prosecuted a group of men who assaulted a 22-year-old Navajo man with a developmental disability and defaced his body with white supremacist and anti-Native American symbols.

The division enforces laws that protect the freedom to practice one’s religion, free from discrimination or persecution while incarcerated. In September, the District Court in South Dakota agreed with us that Native American inmates must be permitted to use tobacco in religious ceremonies in prison, without second-guessing whether tobacco is traditional to Native American religious practices.

In 2010, when minorities were hit particularly hard by the housing crisis, we created a Fair Lending Unit to address credit discrimination.  Particularly in communities where unemployment rates were already high, as with many Native American communities, it is critical that we remain vigilant in enforcing fair housing and fair lending laws to ensure they do not suffer even further.

Using our authority under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we work to ensure state courts and other federally funded programs are free of discrimination and accessible to everyone, regardless of language – including Native Americans.

Finally, the division continues to enforce and defend the laws that enable access to the paramount expression of our democracy – the equal right to vote. The division enforces federal voting laws that protect Native Americans from discrimination based on race or membership in a language minority group.  We have been active in enforcing and defending voting laws in Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, and Alaska. 

We do this work, not only because it is our legal responsibility as a government, but because it is our moral responsibility as members of a broader community.  We have the rule of  law and the will of the federal government behind us and we will continue to protect the civil rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

For more information on the Civil Rights Division efforts, you may contact the Indian Working Group at indianrights.workinggroup@usdoj.gov.

For information about the department’s wide array of efforts in tribal communities, please visit justice.gov/tribal.

 

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