Kenneth Gonzales, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, talks with NMID about federal justice in Indian Country:
On the lack of communication between the federal government and tribes — and how the Department of Justice is trying to change that:
“I really can’t speak to how it was before, but goodness knows, it’s been rough. This has not been a recent issue. This goes back centuries. Mistrust, misunderstanding and misinformation have led to a challenge to get things done.
“I happen to know that the attorney general and the president of the United States himself recognize the importance of fulfilling our trust responsibility to Indian Country. But even if I hadn’t heard it from the president or the attorney general, I would have done it anyway. Many of us are from New Mexico, and many of us know firsthand what the challenges are in each of these communities. Many of us know personally a lot of the people who live in these communities and know the frustration, know the conditions. And so for me it was a no brainer to prioritize it.
“Ten percent of New Mexico’s population is a pretty large percentage. And we just can’t ignore it.”
Gonzales has been U.S. attorney for New Mexico since 2010. He’s soon headed to Las Cruces to be a federal judge.
“I feel really good that we have set down a foundation that I think is longer-lasting, that will live beyond my tenure here. The next person certainly has the prerogative to scramble up the resources in the office and direct them in other areas. I would certainly encourage that person, whatever he or she does, to maintain the course in this particular area.
“I think it is important to keep these people who are in this office, who have this expertise and relationships, right where they are. When you start shifting those around, that just means starting all over again. The people in the community, the governors, the tribal judges, they all know that and will want to see a continuity of what we have in place right now.
“I think we have the foundation, a system in place, and people who are dedicated and equipped to do this work. The future looks very good for us to be able to continue, not to just click up the numbers and the statistics, but really to develop that good will and trust that we have developed over the last few years.”
On what higher prosecution numbers in Indian Country mean to everyone in New Mexico, not just the 10 percent of the population that is Native:
“I think it’s important for the general public to know what the reality is in Indian Country when it comes to crime. And our role. So we’ve done a lot to push information on the cases we are doing and to educate the public on what we are doing. It’s important [for the public to understand] the successes that we’re having and the difference I think we’re having.
“It’s just as important for the general public to know and appreciate what we have in each one of these communities.
“Yes, there’s a reality. Yes, there are the public safety challenges that we have. But just as importantly, there’s all the good stuff that’s happening in each of these communities. There are all of the wonderful people that live in these communities. We deal with a very small fraction of that 10 percent, but the rest of that 10 percent, these are citizens of New Mexico. These are contributing people to our greater community. The leadership you’ll find in some of these communities is just as dedicated as you’ll find anywhere else. To improve the lives of the people that live in these communities, they’re working really hard toward economic development, jobs, and to create educational opportunities for the young people that live and come out of these communities. That’s good news. That’s good stuff that the rest of the population should know.
“What we deal with oftentimes is the tragic and very sad piece of this. But there’s the other part of the picture, and the other part of the story that needs to be shared. I try to do that as much as possible, so that people now, besides all the bad news, there’s good news, too, and good reason to be encouraged.”