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Honoring the Civil Rights of Native Americans
November 27, 2013 Posted by

This post is courtesy of the Civil Rights Division

In keeping with President Barack Obama’s proclamation recognizing National Native American Heritage Month, this month the Department of Justice honors the vibrant cultures of Native American societies and strengthens the government-to-government relationship between the United States and each tribal nation.  By proclaiming November to be Native American Heritage Month, President Obama reaffirmed this administration’s commitment to Native self-determination and the right of tribal governments to build and strengthen their own communities. 

The Civil Rights Division shares this commitment to respecting and protecting the rights of tribes and individual Native Americans.  The division’s work in this area is a year-round effort, spearheaded by the division’s Indian Working Group.  The Indian Working Group has representatives from every section of the division, from education to voting to employment, recognizing that Native Americans’ civil rights should be protected in every sphere of life.  This collaborative effort elevates enforcement, outreach and educational opportunities concerning Native American issues throughout the country.

For too long, Native Americans have experienced discrimination and injustice, and the federal government can and must stop such unequal treatment.  In response to frequent concerns raised by tribal leaders, the Civil Rights Division’s Indian Working Group is researching new ways to enhance implementation of civil rights laws and other laws affecting the rights of Native American parents and children in the context of child custody.  The discriminatory removal of Native American children from their families and placement in foster care and adoption systems, without adequate consideration of tribal citizenship and the unique family structures in Native American communities, are of deep concern to Native Americans and tribes.  The Indian Working Group is interested in methods in which the division can effectively assist in addressing Native American rights in the child custody context, including enforcement of federal civil rights laws and/or technical assistance to tribal or other related governmental agencies. 

The division enforces federal laws against hate crimes and discriminatory or abusive policing. We confront 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 addition, using our authority under the Religious Land Use of Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), this year we urged courts to ensure Native American prisoners in South Dakota were able to freely practice their religion.  

The Civil Rights Division’s ability to enforce federal civil rights laws on behalf of Native Americans depends on communication with Native Americans who have faced discrimination – whether in education, housing, voting, employment or lending – on the basis of race, national origin, English language fluency or religion.  To that end, the Indian Working Group is striving to establish relationships with Native American human and civil rights groups.  This year the Indian Working Group entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC) as a mechanism to communicate regularly about potential civil rights issues and the division’s role in enforcing civil rights laws.  The Indian Working Group has embarked on a series of meetings with the NNHRC to exchange information that might necessitate referral to law enforcement agencies for further investigation when deemed appropriate.  This is the first agreement of its kind reached by the Indian Working Group and it serves to support our mission to identify and address potential civil rights violations that affect Native Americans. 

In an effort to expand our outreach, the Indian Working Group has launched an Indian Working Group website – www.justice.gov/crt/iwg/ – that provides information about the Civil Rights Division’s work on behalf of Native Americans and includes links to publications, statements, briefs, press releases, outreach initiatives and contact information.

We do this work not only because it is our legal responsibility as a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, but because it is our moral responsibility as members of a broad, diverse community.  We have the power of the law and the federal government behind us, and we will continue to protect the civil rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives.  The Indian Working Group can be reached at indianrights.workinggroup@usdoj.gov.

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