SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. -- Making more arrests and throwing more offenders behind bars will not bring an end to the crimes against children and other violence that is plaguing many of the nation's American Indian communities, a federal official for Indian affairs said Tuesday.
"We will not arrest ourselves out of this problem," said Larry Echo Hawk, the U.S. Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. "We need to create healthy families that will raise children that will not be diverted into avenues of crime."
The former prosecutor, state attorney general and law professor gave the keynote address at the start of a three-day national symposium focused on the protection of children in Indian country. Organizers say the U.S. Department of Justice symposium is the first of its kind.
Lawyers, tribal leaders, police officers and social workers were sharing ideas and being trained on how to spot child abuse, help runaways and other at-risk children, prevent the online exploitation of children and address drug and alcohol abuse and its impact on Indian children.
The problems aren't new, however.
Echo Hawk said many of them are deeply rooted in the mistreatment of Indians by the federal government over the past two centuries. He pointed to the Long Walk, a brutal and deadly march in the 1860s from Navajo and Mescalero Apache homelands in the Southwest to a desolate tract in eastern New Mexico.
The suffering experienced by the Navajos and Mescalero Apache was not confined to one generation, he said.
"In this scenario of struggle, problems have been created from generation to generation. ... It's not over. I think this still plagues our communities across the country," he said.
Those at the symposium pointed to crime rates higher than the national average, faltering graduation rates for Indian high schoolers, incidences of suicide and rape, child abuse and abduction.
More than 360 children have been confirmed missing from tribal land and those reported cases likely represent only one-quarter of all the children who have gone missing in Indian Country, said Phil Keith, a program director for the Amber Alert program and a former Knoxville, Tenn., police chief.
Amber Alert plans have been developed in more than a dozen tribal communities, but Keith said the idea is to get those participating in the symposium to "think outside of the box" to develop more ways of preventing crimes against children.
In Oklahoma, attorney Geri Wisner-Foley said she often gets frustrated over the lack of resources, trained personnel and funding.
"It's as if we've been given a little Band-Aid to treat a mortal wound. We've got a big problem here," she said. "Hopefully, we'll get bigger bandages to address really what the wound is."
Echo Hawk said the Obama administration has sought increased budget allocations for Indian Affairs and has proposed sending more federal agents and social workers to Indian country.
He acknowledged the federal government's trust responsibility to protect Indian people, but he said the focus should be placed on empowering tribal governments.
"They are the true stakeholders. We need to develop their justice systems and their law enforcement systems and their social service systems so they can govern their own people," Echo Hawk said.
Echo Hawk left a vision in which the federal government would no longer be needed in Indian County, although he acknowledged that it might not happen within his lifetime.
"The sovereign nations of native people would stand tall and handle their own situations. That is the direction this nation ought to go," he said.