PHOENIX — FOR years, in the wind-swept ranges of Arizona's native American communities, justice has been hard to come by.
But now, a one-of-a-kind Federal Bureau of Investigation program on Arizona's Navajo Reservation is providing a model for how to protect and police native American reservations.
Operation Safe Trails has significantly curbed crime and violence in Navajo territory - and fostered cooperation among two groups that have traditionally been at odds - by bringing together FBI and Navajo investigators in a special task force.
With the nation's native American tribes facing a rise in crime and potential corruption from gaming on their lands, the issue of who bears responsibility for combatting tribal crime is increasingly in the spotlight.
In Minnesota, for example, members of the White Earth Reservation have been indicted for alleged corruption in connection with the theft of funds allocated for construction of a casino on tribal lands. The defendants deny wrongdoing.
And in response to a shootout at a tribal casino, California officials last month conducted a rare briefing on how to enforce the law on Indian lands.
In addition to Operation Safe Trails, Attorney General Janet Reno is reaching out to native Americans by establishing an Office of Tribal Justice, in an attempt to combat what is seen as a pattern of neglect by federal and state officials.
Operation Safe Trails
Now in its second year, Operation Safe Trails is charting one possible path through the complex tangle of who bears responsibility - federal, tribal, or local authorities - for protecting the safety of native Americans and combatting crime.
The program takes place on the Navajo nation, the country's largest tribal territory, where the homicide rate is a troubling 2.5 times higher than the national average. It has been so successful that it was extended recently to include the White Mountain Apache tribe in Arizona.
A spinoff on Operation Safe Streets, an FBI program that combats crime in urban areas, Operation Safe Trails investigates homicides, child sex-abuse cases, and gang-related activity.
The program has significantly cut crime in Navajo country, and has "dramatically reduced the delay" between commission of a crime and arrest and prosecution, says Janet Napolitano, US attorney for Arizona.
Bringing together a task force of Navajo criminal investigators and five FBI agents, Operation Safe Trails has also helped foster a feeling of cooperation between the two communities.
Navajo investigators received training for the task force at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. In addition, the FBI provided six four-wheel-drive vehicles, as well as cellular phones, fax machines, radio communications, and photographic and video equipment.
Both sides benefit. The Navajos gain from the FBI's equipment and investigative know-how. Navajo investigators on the task force aid FBI agents who frequently run into resistance on reservations either from witnesses unwilling to talk or because investigators have difficulty with native American languages and cultures.
A program like Operation Safe Trails could help law enforcement in states like California, says Walter Mills, director of the Phoenix area office of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.
There, state officials have waged a heated battle with Indian reservations over who has the right to man and patrol casinos in the state. The state's tribes lack their own police forces.
California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and Attorney General Dan Lungren have declared slot machines, like those found at tribal casinos, to be illegal under state law, as have the US Supreme Court and the Justice Department.
California law-enforcement officials are permitted to enter native American territory to enforce criminal laws and arrest suspects.
But recent court rulings, including a Supreme Court decision to let stand a lower court ruling, have upheld tribal gaming operations as regulatory rather than criminal in nature, thus exempting them from state prosecution.
Lungren spokesman Steve Telliano says the rulings leave the state's hands tied.
But the debate over tribal gambling, says Sacramento attorney Howard Dickstein, points up how the state's policy - to strip tribes of their autonomy and assimilate them into the dominant Anglo culture - has failed.
Mr. Dickstein, who represents several tribes, said the law is "from an outmoded era," and should be scrapped in favor of allowing native Americans to govern themselves.