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Standing Up for Every Child

Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
6/17/14

The statistics sound like they come from another county. A one in five chance of committing suicide, a one in ten chance of being abused, twice as likely to be placed in foster care, and a one in three chance of living in poverty.

But these are the odds, right here, in the United States for Native American children living in North Dakota, Alaska, Oklahoma, California, and across the country today.

Most Americans are vaguely aware of the problems confronting Native Americans, particularly on Indian reservations. But many don’t comprehend the full scope and scale of the daunting challenges facing young people growing up in Indian country. 

This is a story of broken promises. Almost two centuries ago, our government promised Native Americans health care, education, and housing support in exchange for their land, minerals, and natural resources. We haven’t delivered. As a result, Native American children are now among the most vulnerable populations in the United States.

These children, like all children, deserve better.

As senators from North Dakota and Alaska, these aren’t just statistics to us. We have been touched by the proud histories and rich cultures, traditions, and languages of Native Americans. Over the years, we have joined them for countless tribal meetings, powwows, potlatches, and potlucks.  We embrace the young children who run up to us at Head Start programs and elementary schools. And we are saddened when we see these communities in our states ravaged by poverty and neglect. We want to do something about it.

First, we need to learn more about the problems. Currently, we have only national statistics about Native children, but, shockingly, we don’t have data for each state or each tribe. As a result, programs offering support are often redundant and federal resources do not reach the communities in which they are needed most.

Second, we need simpler grant programs. Tribal governments often have to jump through excessive hoops just to apply for federal grants, making it difficult for tribes to access programs that could help these children.

Third, we need fresh ideas.

It’s for all of these reasons that we introduced our bill, the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children—named for two late elders in Native American communities in North Dakota and Alaska—which would put us on track to address these problems and to begin making life better for Native children.   

We know many roll their eyes when they hear about another federal commission. But in this case, the commission we are proposing is desperately needed to understand the scope and scale of the problems before we can begin fixing them.

Our commission would be empowered to review all programs, grants, and supports available for Native American children—both at government agencies and on the ground in Native communities—to find out what is working and what isn’t. Then, unlike most other commissions, our commission will offer solutions. The 11 commission members will provide real recommendations to address the high rates of poverty, unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, and substance abuse, and offer ways to help Native children overcome these challenges. 

Our bill already has 27 bipartisan cosponsors from all across the political spectrum, reinforcing that standing up for Native American children should not be a partisan issue. Last month, it passed unanimously out of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs with the next step a vote on the Senate floor.

But the largest task confronting us as we push for our legislation is raising awareness about the current state of Native children. 

Last Friday, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota—a historic visit and a step in the right direction. They sat down with Native American children to talk about many of these challenges and what can be done to give every Native kid the opportunity to grow and succeed. Incredibly, President Obama was only the second sitting president to visit an Indian reservation since World War II.

While we don’t agree with the President on everything, we are on the same page when it comes to fighting for Native children. We are hopeful the president’s visit helps elevate these issues nationally, just as we are trying to do through our work in the Senate, so more Americans realize that we must do a better job for Native children.

After two centuries of failed promises, may we finally answer the call of Chief Sitting Bull, the great Lakota chief: “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

Heidi Heitkamp is a democratic senator from North Dakota; Lisa Murkowski is a repubican senator from Alaska.

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