Sen. Heidi Heitkamp: “I want to see that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is not seen as the forgotten stepchild of the Department of the Interior. I want its needs to be front and center.”

Sen. Heitkamp Discusses Her Plans to Help Native American Children

Rob Capriccioso


Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) says she owes a lot to Indian country, believing that the American Indian vote during her close race for a Senate seat last fall put her over the top for the win. She’s now returning the favor, telling Indian Country Today Media Network in an interview about her plans to pass legislation that would create a Commission on Native American Children.

Of all the many issues you face in the Senate, why did you decide to introduce a plan to find solutions to problems facing Native youth as your first bill?

I’m not new to this issue. When I look across the horizon and ask who needs a little more help, and where do we have some problems, it’s obviously in Indian country. They are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system; they are overrepresented in the foster care system. Thirty seven percent live in poverty, many live in substandard housing and have substandard educational opportunities. It’s not for lack of trying by the tribal governments and the schools, but right now, with sequestration, we have roofs that are not getting fixed in North Dakota. Who else is going to step up and provide that voice for these children who for so many years have struggled? The time has come. I can’t keep asking people to do something about it when I am in a position to take responsibility.

If your legislation passes and the commission is established, how will you measure its success?

I will measure its success by whether it is collaborated and not just the typical knee-jerk response. Many of my colleagues in the Senate don’t understand the additional challenges here, and I think this commission will give us the opportunity to do some broader education and get more people on board for long-term solutions. [I want to see] ideas that are culturally sensitive, but also that can produce results long term. I hope the commission will set us on a trajectory to provide a plan for improvement of the conditions for Native American kids.

Why a commission as opposed to some other form of addressing the issue?

I think a commission because, if you talk to Indian educators or Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement, everybody comes at it from their own perspectives. When I was attorney general, I did a big facilitation on juvenile justice, and basically, because of the people we invited, they were simply talking about detention centers. Well, that wasn’t the solution to kids getting in trouble on the reservation, in my opinion. So we need to bring in people from a multi-disciplinary approach who are committed to a process that will set us on a path for change. If I walk out of this office, whenever that is, and I have not done something that improves the conditions for Native American children in my state and in this country, I will not feel successful as a United State senator.

The commission ends after three years—why that timeframe?

Because we can’t waste another generation.

The cost of the commission is $2 million—is cost going to be a sticking point in the current congressional budgetary climate?

We are trying to find solutions, and I think there are going to be so many people excited about this, I think you will see so many people [in Congress] stepping up. It’s not new money, it will be a reallocation, and I hoping that will get a lot of buy in. Two million is a lot of money, but we just spent $168 million a day shutting down government. Where are our priorities?

Where will the money be reallocated from?

The Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Interior. It’s basically asking them all to pony up a small amount to fund the commission.

Will tribes receive any money?

The $2 million is just for the costs of the commission. It’s not going to act as an appropriator. It is going to show the things we can do working collaboratively in a government-to-government relationship.

Who will sit on the commission? Any tribal citizens?

It will be appointees of the president, the Senate majority Leader, the minority leader in the Senate, and the majority and minority speakers in the House. Whoever they want. We expect that tribal citizens will be invited to serve on both the commission and its advisory committee. I prefer that the appointees be from Indian country.

How is your relationship with tribes evolving?

I think most tribal leaders would say I had a fairly good relationship with them before I entered the Senate. I think I’ve always approached tribal governments as sovereign governments with sovereign people. We have to be respectful of the government-to-government relationship. And I understand treaty rights, and look at them from a lens of contractual responsibilities. I think my relationship has only gotten stronger with tribes in the last year.

Did the Indian vote help you win your race?

It would be hard to say no, wouldn’t it? It was a huge factor in my campaign.

Native children are obviously a huge priority for you, what other Indian country issues will you be taking the lead on?

One of the issues I have been involved with is looking at the IRS intrusion into sovereign tribal assistance to tribal people. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and I have the lead bill there, trying to roll back IRS excess. Indian housing is also a huge issue for me. I’m on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and intend to be a very active member of that committee. I want to see that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is not seen as the forgotten stepchild of the Department of the Interior. I want its needs to be front and center.

Lastly, you have introduced the bill to establish the commission with Sen. Lisa Murkowski—a Republican. How important is bipartisanship in Congress on Indian issues?

Especially on this issue, it’s absolutely critical. In the end, if we are going to follow up with reallocation of resources; if we’re going to respond with resources, we need to build as broad a base as possible and get as much buy in as we possibly can to implement the recommendations of the commission.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
yeah, right...what white person EVER helped us without expecting something in return...i.e. votes in her next election???

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

Ernie Crey's picture
Ernie Crey
Submitted by Ernie Crey on
And this is one of the more important ways to get change on either side of the Canada/U.S. border. Get involved. Get out and vote.

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Senator, you may have good intentions with this commission idea of yours, however, UNLESS it is made up of First Nations peoples, it isn't going to mean one thing to our many people across Indian Country. OUR peoples know what is needed here in OUR native communities & WE also know what it will take to turn things around. The one thing we do NOT need is another government group telling us what we need. We already know what is needed, so ask US & put OUR peoples on this commission, otherwise, this is just going to be another government agency made up of Loafs About the Fort & Waschichus who don't have one clue about one thing here in Indian Country & our daily struggles! ALL answers always come from the past my friends.....................

Lee Ann TallBear's picture
Lee Ann TallBear
Submitted by Lee Ann TallBear on
Reinventing the wheel, reinventing the wheel, reinventing the wheel.......

Hochunk woman who loves her people's picture
Hochunk woman w...
Submitted by Hochunk woman w... on
Poverty Programs on our reservations are designed to keep Native people down, to qualify and benefit from these programs you have to stay under the poverty level. Therefore, making it easier for us to be content with low-substandard living conditions, and way of life. These programs need to be designed to create a step up to a new beginning and quality of life and rise from poverty levels instead of keeping us down and under the thumb.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Comment by T.A. Scroggin-Lake: The American government has always failed Indigenous children.This is probably the worst government ever in terms of representing main stream people.What makes you think they care about Native people. I'm going to guess you are not a Native American. I'm going to guess the deplorable issues that surround our children are going to be used to rationalize further mining and land theft. If this government was interested at all in Native issues and had any plan other than genocide they would not have reduced moneys to schools and clinics on reservations through the Sequestering Bill. The commission that Obama created to look at Native American issues has not one Indigenous First Nation representative on it, and looks like to me group corporation flunkies looking to see how they can get more land. So in closing you should be ashamed of yourself, asking people to support a bill that looks at Native children's issues when it has ALWAYS been the US Government that caused the issues in the first place. I suggest a history lesson. Do not use our children to steal our land. I mean honestly Obama is re-writing the Constitution and you truthfully believe this government, the two headed one party system that does the bidding of corporations, is going to give "Justice for Native American Children" Your commission will be getting paid two million dollars to "investigate" but children will get nothing. We don't need investigators. We know the problems. If someone does not already know the problems they have no business being involved in the issues, it would take too long to educate them. If you want to do something that will help Native children focus on clean water. Stop fracking and other forms of land rape. Get your presidents faces off the Black Hills and demand that it and "Devils Tower" and Bear Butte are Sacred Native sites not to be treated as recreational locations and give them back to the People. Free Leonard Peltier as people have asked for years. Do things that will help the identity of the people, don't use the results of over 100 years physical, mental and Spiritual genocide to pay politicians to look into something they will never understand. This email will probably never reach you anyway. I am a current Fulbright Fellow in Aotearoa (NZ) working on my PhD. I am looking at Indigenous knowledges in education and the success Maori have had now entering their fourth generation of children. My grandfather was a boarding school survivor. T.A. Scroggin-Lake