WASHINGTON, April 4 — The U.S. Department of Justice‘s Environment and Natural Resources Division issued the following speech:
This is a critical time for Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), our nation’s keystone federal law protecting Indian children. As you’ve already heard this morning and will hear more about during the conference, there is a lot of exciting activity in this area, at the federal, state and tribal level. Federal engagement is at unprecedented levels. But in recent years, we’ve also seen increasing attacks on the statute and on tribal sovereignty more generally. The need for all of us to engage on these issues has never been greater.
I’m going to talk a bit about the Department of Justice’s role on Indian issues generally, and describe some of our recent work to promote implementation of and compliance with ICWA. Since the beginning of this Administration, the Department of Justice has made our relationship with Indian tribes and the safety and welfare of tribal citizens a priority. We have seen tangible results from these efforts. We’re particularly proud of our progress addressing domestic violence in Indian country, most notably through the bipartisan passage of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA), which incorporated provisions recommended by the Justice Department that, for the first time in decades, empower Indian women who experience abuse by non-Native men.
That historic piece of legislation recognized tribes’ inherent ability to exercise special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction over all offenders on their lands. It made clear that tribal courts are fully entitled to enforce civil protection orders. And it strengthened federal sentences for certain acts of domestic violence in Indian Country, ensuring that wrongdoers are held wholly accountable for their crimes, regardless of where they occur.
The Environment and Natural Resources Division is the part of the department tasked with defending federal laws and programs that benefit tribes and tribal sovereignty over their lands and people. It is well established that Congress can pass laws that single out Indians and Indian tribes for special treatment, in part because there is a unique government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and tribes that dates to the founding of our country. ICWA is one of those laws – it was passed by Congress to address the widespread removal of Indian children from their parents, extended families and tribal communities. Congress recognized its responsibility to protect and preserve Indian tribes and their people and understood that Indian tribes could cease to exist if their children continued to be systematically taken away.
The statute contains many important protections for Indian children, their parents and their tribes. But it is aimed mainly at state agencies and courts and does not expressly carve out a large role for the federal government. So the federal government has traditionally had some, but not a great deal, of involvement in the implementation of the statute.
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