The top Federal prosecutor in North Dakota intends to follow the best traditions of the U. S. Justice Department in protecting the civil rights of Native Americans living in the state.
U. S. Attorney Timothy Q. Purdon said he will follow the example of the late Robert F. Kennedy, who made civil rights a priority when he was United States Attorney General in the 1960s.
Purdon’s remarks came January 17 at a Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Day program at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck.
“I do not believe that Native American people can overcome decades of isolation and poverty imposed upon them by the reservation system until, first and foremost, they feel safe in their homes and communities,” said Purdon. “As the chief federal law enforcement officer for North Dakota, my goal is to improve public safety in Indian Country. The second goal is to have a small part in the Department of Justice’s long history in civil rights.”
Purdon was sworn in five months ago as North Dakota’s eighteenth U. S. Attorney. Since August, he said, he has visited all of the state’s reservations, meeting with leaders of tribal government, law enforcement, social services, and tribal courts.
“I’m just beginning my process of trying to reach out to tribal communities and help affect positive change,” he said.
Purdon noted that January 21, 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s swearing in as attorney general. He described Kennedy’s commitment to enforcing civil rights laws for African-Americans, adding that Kennedy ensured that the law prevailed over the forces of bigotry, hatred and violence. That, he said, was a tremendous contribution to the Civil Rights movement.
“I would hope that Robert Kennedy holds a special place for Native Americans,” said Purdon. “The cause of Native American civil rights was something he cared deeply about as well.”
In September of 1963, Kennedy traveled to Bismarck to address the National Congress of American Indians at their 20th annual convention. As part of his remarks he said that the Native American had been “the victim of racial discrimination in his own land.” He noted the statistics at the time: an infant mortality rate two times that of whites, and a life expectancy 20 years less than whites.
“Forty-seven long years ago the Attorney General of the United States came to Bismarck and addressed these problems,” said Purdon. “You would think that, at some point, those problems would be dealt with and fixed.”
But the statistics are still troubling 50 years later, he said. Indian Country now has an infant mortality rate 33 percent higher than for whites. In tribal communities a Native American is 229 percent more likely to die in a car crash than a white person. The murder rate in tribal communities is 61 percent higher than the rest of the country. And the suicide rate is 62 percent higher.
“These problems have not been solved. So the struggle for Native American civil rights is far from over,” he said.
Purdon said he sees Robert Kennedy as his guidepost when thinking about what he can do to help. In his office in Fargo, he said, he has a framed photo of Kennedy taken at the NMAI address in Bismarck. It shows Kennedy being presented with a full eagle-feather headdress by a member of the Standing Rock Tribe.
“Every time I look at that photograph it reminds me of the responsibility we have, not just to the enforcement of our criminal laws, but also to the enforcement of our civil rights laws,” he said. “I look to that photograph often as I begin this journey reaching out to tribal communities.”
While the prosecution of violent crimes in tribal communities comes first and foremost, Purdon said, it is just as important to enforce civil rights laws so Native Americans know the Justice Department stands with them against the forces of bigotry, hatred and ignorance.
The text of Purdon’s speech can be found at the United Tribes Technical College official site.