A sample of photos by Matika Wilbur, via Project 562.

A sample of photos by Matika Wilbur, via Project 562.

If you’re fortunate enough to have today off for Indigenous People’s Day, I’ve got a suggestion for the best place to spend it: The Heard Museum in Phoenix, which has a series of events to commemorate the day.

Here is a list of the events, which begin at 12:30 p.m.

You may have heard that the Phoenix City Council voted that the city would celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. That makes it the largest U.S. city to celebrate the annual event.

As the news story reported:

The proposal to create Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Phoenix emerged in May, when residents Jeff Malkoon and Carlos Bravo submitted to the city an application for a historical commemoration.

“The city of Phoenix is built on what was the Hohokam civilization,” Malkoon told council members. “We just think this is a significant statement for a city like Phoenix, being such a center point in the Southwest.”

And this is part of a growing national trend, as CNN reports.

In what was a great preview of Monday’s Heard events, audience members at the Heard Sunday afternoon heard from two artists and two lawyers on the intersection of art, Indian identity and law. (I wrote about the event here.)

That gathering included insights from artists Matika Wilbur and Gregg Deal.

Deal’s film “The Last American Indian on Earth” was screened. It shows, in surprising and occasionally humorous ways, the complicated relationship mainstream American society has with Native culture.

Wearing a faux historic Indian costume (manufactured in China, for good measure), Deal strode about Washington DC. The reactions he got were troubling and laden with meaning.

As Deal says in the voiceover, “When you let the cameras roll, Americans, they don’t disappoint.”

As one hand-written sign he holds tells passersby, “My spirit animal is white guilt.”

L to R at the Heard Museum panel on Indian identity, art, and law, Oct. 9, 2016: Matika Wilbur, Kevin Gover, Gregg Deal, Brett Shelton.

L to R at the Heard Museum panel on Indian identity, art, and law, Oct. 9, 2016: Matika Wilbur, Kevin Gover, Gregg Deal, Brett Shelton.

Matika Wilbur then spoke, presenting her itinerant photo experience with Project 562, which aims to photograph citizens of each federally recognized tribe in the United States (there are now 566).

As she describes on her site:

“Most of the time, I’ve been invited to geographically remote reservations to take portraits and hear stories from a myriad of tribes, while at other times I’ve photographed members of the 70 percent of Native Americans living in urban settings. My hope is that when the project is complete, it will serve to educate the nation and shift the collective consciousness toward recognizing our own indigenous communities.”

A longtime educator from Seattle, Wilbur asked, “When are we going to stop asking our children to choose between cultural education and Western education?”

Wilbur also spoke about how Indian identity is “inextricably connected to the land.” Discussing the sensation known as solastalgia—separation from home—she wondered how the Cocopah, for instance, known as the people of the blue-green water, could be Cocopah if access to that water is denied or destroyed.

In the subsequent panel discussion, attorney Kevin Gover addressed that issue and the way violations have been visited on Native peoples by the American legal system. For example, in Fletcher v. Peck (1810), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Indian title to land was not true title, as Indians were itinerant hunters and had never been farmers—an absolute misstatement of the facts. But it was decisions like that which provided the veneer of law to unjust decisions.

In fact, Gover pointed out, the most famous Native-land-title cases were collusive ones, manufactured conflicts presented by land speculators to prod a desired outcome from a compliant Court. To America’s enduring shame, the Court proved a willing co-conspirator in the effort.

The American legal system, Gover said, “played a huge role in the removal and dispossession of Native peoples.”

Through their art, Matika Wilbur and Gregg Deal explore America’s complicated relationship with Native peoples. As a teacher, Wilbur reminded the audience that these mainstream viewpoints are learned ones, and that the dominant Western view of Indians helps shield society from honest appraisals.

To illustrate that, she showed search results in Google images from searches for the simple terms “African American,” “Asian American,” “Hispanic American,” and, finally, “Native American.”

Among all of those searches, the Native American search was the only one that yielded an almost uniform view of Indians as historic beings—and actually as faux historic beings. Nearly every image reconfirms the popular image of Indians as conceptualized 150 years ago.

Google image search results for "Native American," Oct. 9, 2016.

Google image search results for “Native American,” Oct. 9, 2016.

Where are the modern Indians who live among us, Wilbur asked.

They are all about us, Wilbur and Deal said. If people are willing to see.

Again, here are today’s Heard Museum events.

Google image search results for "Asian American," Oct. 9, 2016.

Google image search results for “Asian American,” Oct. 9, 2016.

Google image search results for "African American," Oct. 9, 2016.

Google image search results for “African American,” Oct. 9, 2016.

Google image search results for "Hispanic American," Oct. 9, 2016.

Google image search results for “Hispanic American,” Oct. 9, 2016.

 

Just more than a month after U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke re-asserted his position that prosecution on Indian land is a priority, we can see significant movement on the topic.

It may have been the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington that made wide-ranging legislative proposals, but they have the fingerprints of western states’ prosecutors all over it. And that’s a great thing.

As an article describes it, the changes would “stiffen federal sentences for certain domestic violence crimes in Indian Country and expand tribes’ authority to enforce protection orders against non-Indians living on reservations.”

I’ve written more than once about the crisis confronting law-abiding people on Indian land. And this article reiterates that crimes have reached “epidemic rates”:

“One-third of all American Indian women will be raped in their lifetime, and nearly three of five have been assaulted by their partner, the Justice Department says. In addition, murder rates are 10 times higher than the national average for Native women.”

The proposed changes would be considered in congressional reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Among them would be an expansion of federal jurisdiction over crimes committed on the reservation. The change would mean “sentences more in line with those faced by defendants in state courts who commit the same crimes, and give prosecutors better tools for deterring the offenses.”

Proposals also would allow tribal courts to enforce protection orders against non-Indians, no matter where the order originates.

If enacted, the VAWA amendments would take effect in two years.

We’ll follow the story as it develops. But this is a noteworthy step in stemming the epidemic.

Dennis Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona

A noteworthy opinion piece in the Arizona Daily Sun nearly slipped past me unnoticed. But it is a hopeful sign for a chronic Arizona—and national—problem.

In the op-ed, Dennis K. Burke, the United States Attorney for the District of Arizona, says that prosecutions are up on Indian reservations.

Depending on whom you ask, low prosecution rates on the reservation has been either a national embarrassment or a misunderstanding about the way things really work.

This “declination rate” (named for the fact the federal prosecutors often decline to prosecute) is being reversed, Burke said. But not before adding, right up in the second graf, “Disturbingly, this recent news coverage [on declinations] distracts from the most important public safety metric—more violent criminals are being prosecuted in Arizona Indian Country than ever before.”

Hmmm—“distracts”? The U.S. Attorney’s Office may be understandably thin-skinned about the issue. They have been hammered pretty hard on it. In fact, in January I wrote about the proliferation of stories on the topic.

I leave it to others to determine whether the heightened news coverage had any impact on shifting priorities in the prosecutor’s office. Maybe not. Of course, that would be the first time in history that the light of day hadn’t been persuasive.

Nonetheless, the list of accomplishments and initiatives Burke lists are impressive. As I did in January, I cheer those efforts, and we look forward to continued successes.

Read Dennis Burke’s complete message here.

Note: This post was updated on April 17, 2021, to point readers to this helpful article about whatever became of MainJustice.com.

We just got news of some praiseworthy work Arizona lawyers have done. And given the fields they toil in, let’s hope it’s a precursor to more positive change.

Dennis Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona

The news came out of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona. There, eight employees were honored with national awards, given last Wednesday.

As the press release begins, “Eight employees from the Office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona, have been selected as recipients of the 2010 Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) Director’s Awards. These eight employees represent the highest number of awardees in one year for the District of Arizona.  The awards reflect the top priorities in the District for border security, drug trafficking on Indian County and mortgage fraud.”

Honored were Assistant U.S. Attorneys Shelley Clemens, Marnie Hodahkwen, Joe Lodge, Nicole Savel, Sharon Sexton, John Tuchi, Kevin Rapp and Brian Larson.

U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke is rightly proud of his staffers’ accomplishments. These honors are coveted, and it’s great to have Arizona lawyering recognized on a national stage.

You can read the complete release below. (Editor’s note, April 17, 2021: When this news was first posted, I also pointed you to the site MainJustice.com for the complete list of honorees. But since then, that helpful page went away. For insight into what happened to it, read this article.)

It is especially noteworthy that the majority of attorneys receiving accolades are being honored for “Superior Performance in Indian Country.”

The high crime rate and lack of prosecution on Indian reservations has been a serious problem for quite awhile. In fact, few could argue with the fact that the persistence of the problem is a national embarrassment.

Just this past September, an Arizona Republic news story by Dennis Wagner examined the intractable problem of high crime and “declinations” to prosecute—usually due to a lack of evidence, which relates to “convoluted jurisdictional boundaries, insufficient funds for training, and distrust and limited communication between federal and tribal investigators.” Add to that abysmally low police staffing, and you have a problem that many would prefer to keep from the public’s eye.

Today’s newspaper provided another glimpse into the ongoing problem. It reported that half of all crimes committed on Indian land go unprosecuted.

Half.

In places where crime is more than twice the national average. Where more than one in three Native American women are raped sometime during their lives.

It boggles the mind. Can we imagine any other place in the 50 states where such a chronic situation would be allowed to exist for generations?

The story today reports that Arizona and South Dakota account for about half the cases that all federal prosecutors receive annually.

“What’s most disconcerting about these [declination] numbers is that they probably don’t even tell the full story,” said Katy Jackman, staff attorney at the National Congress of American Indians. “What they do confirm is, as we’ve known for some time, that declination rates in Indian country are a major problem.”

Some optimistic news comes out of these numbers, however. Data show that federal prosecutors in Arizona declined “only” 38 percent of the Indian land cases sent to them, whereas prosecutors in South Dakota declined to prosecute 61 percent. (It does not report whether our state is on an upward or a downward trend.)

Congratulations to the prosecutors who have worked hard to develop strategies that make our state safer. The attention that U.S. Attorney Burke and his prosecutors have given to reservation crime is a welcome sign that they are committed to addressing an epidemic that has too much become an accepted commonplace.

We’re looking forward to more positive stories about significant advances in safety and justice, especially on Indian reservations. For as all great prosecutors know, the legacy of their work’s effectiveness is cast most indelibly not in places where TV cameras reach easily. It is sealed in the trust of the most vulnerable—who until now have learned that they are largely on their own when it comes to justice.

Here is the press release.

Eight Members of Arizona’s U.S. Attorney’s Office Honored

Employees to receive prestigious Director’s Awards; reflect top priorities of District

PHOENIX—Eight employees from the Office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona, have been selected as recipients of the 2010 Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) Director’s Awards.

These eight employees represent the highest number of awardees in one year for the District of Arizona.  The awards reflect the top priorities in the District for border security, drug trafficking on Indian County and mortgage fraud.

“Over the past 14 months, the District has focused on expanding security beyond our border back into Mexico and blocking drug trafficking from bleeding into Indian Country,” said Dennis K. Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona.  “We’ve also aggressively targeted the mortgage fraudsters who aided and abetted the decimation of home values in Arizona.”

The employees received their awards from Attorney General Eric Holder at a ceremony December 8 in Washington, D.C.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Shelley Clemens, Marnie Hodahkwen, Joe Lodge, Nicole Savel, Sharon Sexton and John Tuchi will receive the award for Superior Performance in Indian Country.  This team was nominated for development of a comprehensive Indian Country Public Safety program that serves as a model for other Districts across the United States.

The team developed several successful initiatives this year, including joint federal-tribal investigations into drug distribution organizations on four different reservations across Arizona.  The effort has resulted in more than 50 indictments to date.

Kevin Rapp will receive the award for Superior Performance as an Assistant United States Attorney-Criminal.  Rapp was nominated for his excellent work in the mortgage fraud case of the U.S. v Bernadel, et al.

His work in the case resulted in the conviction of eight defendants in a nearly $10 million dollar mortgage scheme.  The lead defendant in the case received a nearly 17-year prison sentence.

The case has been used as a national model for successful mortgage fraud prosecution.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has frequently cited the Bernadel case as an example of the successful efforts by the Department of Justice to combat mortgage fraud.

Brian Larson will also receive an award for Superior Performance as an Assistant United States Attorney-Criminal.  Brian was nominated for his outstanding work to further the mission of the first-ever Rule of Law Group in the District of Arizona and the Department of Justice on the southwest border.

Larson has coordinated and conducted training of Mexican prosecutors and investigators in Sonora as part of the “Rule of Law” outreach.  His work has been instrumental in developing cooperative law enforcement relationships with prosecutors and investigators throughout Mexico, and in coordinating prosecution of some of the most high profile drug trafficking cases in the District of Arizona.

“The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona has done more to prosecute border crimes, crimes in Indian Country and mortgage fraud than any other District in the country,” said Burke.  “These award winners exemplify that leadership and are a testament to how we lead the nation.”

The Director’s Awards are nation-wide awards through which the Attorney General honors the employees of the 93 United States Attorneys’ Offices and EOUSA, as well as other individuals, who have supported the mission of these offices and distinguished themselves through extraordinary professional achievements and excellence.