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U.S. Attorneys discuss tribal issues in Cherokee

U.S. Attorney Dena King presents Principal Chief Richard Sneed an award in recognition of his efforts to partner with and support the Western District Court of North Carolina. Holly Kays photo U.S. Attorney Dena King presents Principal Chief Richard Sneed an award in recognition of his efforts to partner with and support the Western District Court of North Carolina. Holly Kays photo

T The U.S. Attorney General’s Advisory Committee’s Native American Issues Subcommittee is meeting in Cherokee this week, bringing together leaders from across the country to spend three days discussing issues that are important to both the Department of Justice and Native American tribes.

The relationship between tribes and the DOJ has long been fraught with distrust, but Dena King — U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina since November 2021 and current chair of the NAIS — said that she is working to restore that connection. In the past, she said, much of the problem has stemmed from the DOJ not engaging at the community level like it should.

“It’s really important for me to come to the community to meet with members of the community so I can hear directly from members of the community, to include young people, about what their cares, concerns and issues are,” she said. “And I can then better serve as a liaison for the department to then route that information up.”  

King spoke in conjunction with Principal Chief Richard Sneed during a press conference prior to the kickoff of the meeting, held April 4-6 at the Cherokee Convention Center in Cherokee. The NAIS consists of 18 U.S. attorneys from across the nation who serve in districts with at least one federally recognized tribe in their jurisdiction. The subcommittee advises the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and Department of Justice leadership on policy recommendations, federal efforts and initiatives impacting American Indian and Alaska Native communities.  

During the three-day meeting, the NAIS will hold panel discussions on crime deterrence and intervention; criminal, legal and legislative updates; missing and murdered indigenous people;  drug enforcement and substance use disorder prevention efforts; reentry courts; assistance in provision of services to victims of crime; outreach efforts and programs related to community safety and public health and wellness.

The group will also venture outside of the convention center walls, taking a tour of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and meeting with student leaders at Cherokee High School for a panel discussion to take in the students’ concerns and issues. King said she has made “very frequent” visits to CHS to speak with student leaders about the issues that are important to them, telling those assembled in the meeting’s opening that she now considers these students to be friends.

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“We plan on holding important conversations and making valuable recommendations on how to incorporate the students’ insights into our process and address those issues that are raised,” King said.

During her remarks, King made it clear that she sees relationships with both the tribe’s leaders and its young people as critical to better executing the DOJ’s responsibility toward the EBCI. After her appointment to the position in November 2021, she said, Sneed was one of her “very first” calls. She wanted to start the relationship off right, she said, and let him know she wanted to explore how the DOJ and EBCI could partner to improve public safety on tribal land.

Sneed agreed that an open line of communication between him and King is a vital first step toward repairing the relationship between the two organizations and, ultimately, better serving tribal members.

“If you ever have questions about trusting the government, just ask an Indian nation and they’ll advise you on how that goes,” Sneed said. “How we correct that is through relationship and building trust between individuals who are in leadership positions with agencies.”

Right now, Sneed said, that is happening in his relationship with King, and the NAIS choosing to convene in Cherokee is a “great first step” toward building further-reaching trust between the two governments.

However, he added in his comments to the 40 NAIS members, law enforcement officers and Attorney General’s Office representatives assembled for opening remarks, the work is far from over. Before European contact, the Cherokee people formed one distinct Cherokee Nation that touched parts of seven modern-day states. Centuries of oppression from the federal government shrank their holdings, divided their people and afflicted them with poverty and, in many cases, divorce from their culture. The EBCI has now reclaimed much of that once-lost identity, and the success of its casino enterprise over the last quarter-century has “effectively ended” the cycle of poverty.

“All this, and yet there’s one lasting negative residual effect of colonialism and the imposition of the federal government — a dependency model of government,” Sneed said.

This idea goes back to Chief Justice John Marshall’s terming Native American tribes in an 1831 Supreme Court decision  as “domestic dependent nations” whose relationship to the U.S. should resemble that of a ward to a guardian. That idea laid the foundation for the complicated and often messy relationship between Native American tribes and the modern federal government. Sneed joked that the acronym for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the BIA, could alternately stand for “Bossing Indians Around.”

The result of those policies, Sneed said, include higher rates of suicide, infant mortality, substance use disorder, diabetes and a “staggering” 66% of all Native children being born out of wedlock. He called on the NAIS to take these issues seriously and to enter “meaningful conversations” that will foster the relationships with tribes needed to combat these issues.

“What must come is a much more robust government-to-government relationship, one predicated upon mutual respect, and looking out for that which is in the best interest of tribal nations across Indian country,” he said.

This posture of mutual respect and open communication is now more important than ever as tribal, state and federal law enforcement navigate fallout from Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta. The July 2022 Supreme Court decision suggested that states have presumptive jurisdiction in Indian County absent federal legislation curtailing that power — marking a paradigm shift from how jurisdiction had been handled previously and sparking uncertainty about what the decision will mean in practice.

“The department to date has not issued any guidance on this,” King said. “And so we are truly operating in a sense at the local level, with the discretion of relying very extensively on the partnerships we’ve already developed to kind of wade us through this transitional period.”

Sneed said he would like to see the tribe or its courts talk with the U.S. Attorney’s Office about the implications so all parties have a better understanding of what it might look like should the state try to step in on a criminal case, something that thus far has not happened in North Carolina.

“That one is an area of great concern not only for myself and for our attorney general’s office here, but just across Indian country,” he said. “Because there are a lot of question marks.”

To wit, the committee meeting will include an entire panel discussion dedicated to the implications of the Castro-Huerta decision, King said.

Other goals for ongoing collaboration between the DOJ and the EBCI include expanding the existing operational plan for public safety and continuing to seek additional resources for the Western District, whether those be financial resources or human resources.

“We are seeking out opportunities to bring more personnel to our district to be able to help us in some of the pursuits that we do,” King said.

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