Federal Government Must Protect Native Children From Violence

Byron L. Dorgan and Joanne Shenandoah, Ph.D.

We know what is number one in all American’s lives—and that is our children. Yet, tragically some children in the United States are too often forgotten and living in systems without equal access to opportunity. This is all too evident in Indian Country.

Despite the heroic efforts of tribal leaders and governments, for American Indian and Alaska Native children born today violence is an all too common reality. Failed promises on the part of the federal government – including federal restrictions on tribes being able to protect their own people and chronic underfunding of programs – have led to generations of trauma and dire challenges, such as poverty, suicide, substance abuse and incarceration. These challenges are preventing Native American children from having the same opportunity as other American children to live happy, healthy and successful lives.

Despite all of that, there is hope. We can work together to help make Indian Country a safer place for all children.

The solution is not all that complex—the federal government must fulfill its promises. We must respect tribal sovereignty, and support and revamp programs that are intended to serve Native American children. We have to fix a broken system. We must work as partners with tribes to expand funding and make a commitment to reform, so that children and communities exposed to violence can heal and thrive.

The Attorney General’s Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence was established in 2013 to examine the impact of violent crime on children living in tribal lands. The Task Force's Advisory Committee held public hearings in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, and North Dakota, gathering testimony from more than 150 witnesses. The stories are heart breaking, the statistics are shocking, but the potential for change is realistic.

"For us ... the question is not who has been exposed to violence, it’s who hasn’t been exposed to violence," said Mato Standing High, former Attorney General, Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

It is time that we demand change. We must demand proper funding for programs and services that protect our most precious and sacred resource: our children.

Violent crimes on Native American lands are estimated to be more than 2.5 times that of the national rate. Violence accounts for 75 percent of the deaths of American Indian and Alaska Native youth ages 12 to 20. Tragically, death by suicide is three times as likely for Native American youth, and as much as 10 or more times the national average in some tribal communities.

Historical trauma through generations has had a profoundly negative impact on the well-being of America’s indigenous people. Centuries of failed promises and having their lands, homes, cultures, and languages torn away continues to resonate today. Forcing Native children to attend American boarding schools created another layer of trauma. Broken trust obligations destroyed confidence. Decisions by Congress and the Supreme Court eroded tribal sovereignty. With only a very few, yet important exceptions, tribes are still not permitted to prosecute and sentence non-Indians for crimes against Indians in Indian country.

Still, the Advisory Committee also heard witness after witness highlight their dedication to children and pride in honored Native American traditions.

Supporting tribes, removing barriers, and providing resources will help us turn the tide toward healing and sustaining American Indian and Alaska Native children.

Among the recommendations of the Advisory Committee are that Congress pass legislation requiring increased mandatory funding to bring tribal criminal and civil justice systems and tribal child protection systems into parity with the rest of the United States. Congress must also reestablish the authority of Indian tribes to assert criminal jurisdiction over all persons who commit crimes against their children on their land.

Native Americans should guide their own future and with trauma-informed, culturally appropriate programs and services funded by the United State government, tribes can continue their important efforts and the federal government can begin to do what it promised.

To that end, the Advisory Committee recommends additional tribal research funding. We need to improve how tribal child welfare and juvenile justice systems screen and treat traumatized children, with the ultimate goal to recover and enhance the well-being of every child's well-being.

Violence is horrific enough; not having the tools and resources to protect these children, is inexcusable.

We ask the Attorney General and the nation to carefully consider the recommendations in this report and together act decisively to end the violence afflicting American Indian and Alaska Native children.

Let’s show Native American children that they are our top priority; because children are number one.

Former senator Byron L. Dorgan (D-North Dakota) and Joanne Shenandoah, Ph.D., are co-chairs of the Advisory Committee for the Attorney’s General’s Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence, which was established in 2013. The Advisory Committee’s recommendations are being released November 18, 2014. Sen. Dorgan is the founder of the Center for Native American Youth (www.cnay.org) and Ms. Shenandoah is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y.

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