FORT HALL — Speaking to a large group gathered at the Idaho Chapter of the Federal Bar Association's first Indian Law Conference in Fort Hall, Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior, got emotional while talking about crimes committed on Indian reservations.
"Tribes will never meet their full potential to have prosperous communities without safe communities," Echo Hawk said.
He said public safety is one of three priorities outlined by the Obama administration and is the primary concern among tribal leaders throughout the country.
"There are a lot of problems," Echo Hawk said. "One of the critical problems is domestic violence and sexual assault against women," adding that domestic violence runs "rampant" in Indian country.
"We have significant challenges out there to keep communities safe," Echo Hawk said, identifying funding barriers and the difficulty in hiring police officers to work on remote, dangerous Indian reservations as two issues he continues to work on.
"The budget is very significant," Echo Hawk said. "You have to put law enforcement officers on the ground to make a difference."
Since he was sworn into office in 2009, Echo Hawk said funding for tribal criminal law enforcement has increased 35 percent and more than 200 tribal law enforcement officers have been hired to work on various reservations throughout the country.
Over the last two years a study has been conducted on four reservations identified as having high violent crime rates—among them was the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. The goal, Echo Hawk said, was to prove that tribes—with the same resources as communities throughout the country—can reduce their crime rates.
At the end of the two years, the crime rate on the Wind River Indian Reservation declined 48 percent.
"I get a little emotional talking about," Echo Hawk said. "These are people not being victimized."
But Echo Hawk said arresting and jailing those who commit crimes is not the ultimate solution, but addressing juvenile crimes in tribal courts to prevent the graduation to violent crimes is a necessary step to safer communities.
"There's more we need to do to create what I call healthy families," he said.
He said the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act in 2010 is also a key component of addressing crime in Indian Country.