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Gang activity hits urban, rural Indian Country

(The following are excerpts from remarks made Thursday at a U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on gang activity in Indian Country.)

I am honored to join the Indian Affairs Committee, which plays such an important role for our tribal communities all across the country. And it is truly a special honor to serve on the same committee that my good friend and predecessor Paul Wellstone served on.

Chairman (Byron) Dorgan, your work on this committee and throughout the Senate is a blueprint for sensible and bipartisan policymaking. I have long admired your leadership on issues important to rural and tribal communities, and am honored to serve alongside you.

When I learned that I was to become a member of this committee, I noticed something about its make-up. Interestingly, I represent the most eastern state. The overwhelming majority of the 13 states represented are distinctly western.

Minnesota is unique. The Mississippi runs through the middle of our state dividing the rolling hills and deep river valleys of the east, from the open western prairie. In some ways we are a western state; up north we have strong rural tribal communities neighboring endless miles of public lands. But at the same time, with our dense urban populations, we are also eastern. In fact Minneapolis has one of the largest urban Indian populations of any American city.

Across our state, from the most rural northern corners to the most urban southern streets, you will find vibrant tribal communities. This is a unique perspective that I hope to bring to the committee. So I look forward to working with all of my colleagues to help these communities -- urban and rural -- on both sides of the Mississippi.

Now, let me turn to the incredibly important issue we take up today. Across the country, violence is threatening the health of many of our tribal communities.

As most of you remember, a few years ago the Red Lake Reservation in Red Lake, Minnesota suffered a heart-wrenching tragedy. On the morning of March 21, 2005, a tormented 16-year-old boy killed his grandfather and his grandfather's girlfriend. He later drove his grandfather's police car to Red Lake Senior High School, where he shot and killed seven people.

But the violence we are witnessing is not isolated on rural reservations, or limited to an individual tormented youth. Two of our largest problems are the trafficking of drugs and the trafficking of young native women between urban areas and reservation land.

The Drug Enforcement Agency reports that at an increasingly large percentage of the cocaine distributed in Minnesota is done by native American gangs. In a recent Native American Times article, it was noted that: "Reservations offer near-perfect hideouts and lucrative markets. They're often remote, with few businesses and job opportunities. Selling drugs means easy money. Doing them means escape."

The article goes on to highlight some of the groundbreaking work being done in Minnesota and Wisconsin to crack down on tribal crime. In Wisconsin, tribes have banded together to form a one-of-a-kind task force that could be a template for other states to follow. I'm very eager to hear from each of the witnesses about their own initiatives and programs. ...

Back in Minnesota, and all across the country, young native women are also falling victim to sexual crimes and increased trafficking. Sadly, women who come forward to report sexual violence are caught in a jurisdictional maze that federal, state and tribal police often cannot quickly sort out. ...

... I look forward to working with all of my new colleagues to find new and effective ways to protect our tribal communities from the destructive impacts of crime.

Al Franken, DFL-Minn., is a member of the U.S. Senate.