U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND): “[W]e have been so inconsistent with policy and all of that has really hurt people living in Indian country.”

Sen. Heitkamp Discusses the Need for a Commission on Native Children

Vincent Schilling

U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), recently re-introduced their comprehensive bi-partisan plan to find solutions to the complex challenges facing Native American children throughout Indian country.

This legislation, which received unanimous support last year in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs yet did not pass through the Senate would create a national Commission on Native Children to conduct an intensive study into issues facing Native youth – such as high rates of poverty, staggering unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and few economic opportunities – and make recommendations on how to make sure Native children are better taken care of and given the opportunities to thrive.

In a conversation with ICTMN, Senator Heitkamp spoke about her bill which is already gaining traction in 2015 with 20 co-sponsors and support from Senator Byron Dorgan (ret.) the founder of the Center for Native American Youth in Washington D.C.

You received unanimous support from the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last year. It didn't go past the Senate but it has gained some new ground.

We are really excited to reintroduce it. One of the commitments I have made, as I pushed federal officials when I was the (North Dakota) State Attorney General to do more and better things for Indian children, I realized when I came here, this is now my job. I cannot give up until we see changes that we need so that Native children in Indian country have opportunities for education, housing and healthcare that every child in this country deserves and needs.

We know that these are children who frequently suffer from high poverty rates, high crime rates and a lot of despair. We think that there are new strategies that we can deploy that offer new hope and we are very excited to get to work with a commission, but we need to get this commission bill passed.

Your communications director Abigail McDonough told me how much you are willing to get out there and get your hands dirty, and that a lot of your Native American constituents know you.

I have spent a lot of time in Indian country over the years, both as tax Commissioner - I did one of the first negotiations on a tax agreement with Standing Rock. When I was Attorney General, I worked with the U.S. attorney on what we needed to do as it related to domestic violence. I feel passionately with what happened In the Violence Against Women Act. I said I would not vote for any VAWA – as passionate as I am on that issue – unless it also protected Native American women.

These are long-standing concerns and issues and I think when we adopt a policy in our country and in our state then all of our kids do better.

One of the things that we are really trying to do is make this a national concern and a national issue. The president has been an ally on this and I know how passionately he feels coming to Standing Rock, having spent time with him and then watching as he did the Native American leader Summit and the impact talking to the kids at Standing Rock had on he and Michelle.

We have no better ally. This is a president who really gets it and we want to have his legacy be 'changes that actually result in improvement for Native American kids.'

The president certainly has shown his support for Native American youth. Do you feel as though you have alliance with the president’s intentions?

Absolutely, he gathered together the relevant cabinet members to talk about Indian education. That is not good enough because you can build the best educational system, but if that young person lives in a home where there is violence or addiction or 13 people sleeping in a two-bedroom house, doesn't have enough food to eat, doesn't have healthcare or hasn't had a good start because his or her mom did not have good prenatal care, the best school in the world can help but it certainly doesn't get to the root cause of the problem.

I think we are learning more and more about brain development, more and more about historic trauma and we are smarter about strategies that could be deployed that actually would lead to hope and change. I am anxious to see those strategies deployed and discussed by the commission.

We have been doing some work that I started in the Indian affairs committee on historic trauma building on the Department of Justice report and we have been looking at this from the scientific basis. We all know that when bad things happen to us it has an effect on our future – but what we are finding out in terms of brain research is that it actually changes the chemical makeup and the ability for the brain to function. There are different kinds of strategies and therapies that can be deployed to treat trauma – if we identify that and recognize it – whether it is historic trauma including cultural changes, or whether it is one-on-one trauma – we are really learning that Native languages and building back pride in your heritage – all of those things are going to have a huge impact as well.

We don't know it all. For too often in Washington what we have done is we keep doing the same thing over and over again and thinking that we solved the problem. For people who say why should we do this? I would tell you, No. 1 – every child has value and worth in America. Beyond that, we signed a treaty and we said we will help you with healthcare, we will help you with education and we will help you with opportunity.

We have not always been a good partner with sovereign nations so we are really looking forward to also having a discussion about building on most treaty rights so that we make sure that we are living up to our obligations.

Taking all of this into account, what is it you want to do with your bill?

We want to get away from boarding school mentality in which we are going to beat the Indian out of you. Which are not my words. We have had really injurious policies whether it is disestablishment, allotments – we have been so inconsistent with policy and all of that has really hurt people living in Indian country.

Now we have to think that we cannot keep doing what we have been doing. Suicide rates are 2 1/2 times the rate of similar populations. Graduation rates are barely over 50 percent in Indian country. Those are not indications that what we are doing is successful. We all share a responsibility in this whether it is a state government or tribal government or whether it is the federal government. It is also the American people because these are all of our kids. I know the American people are goodhearted and they really care about children and I think if we commit ourselves to a better path forward for the children in Indian country I think we will see a generational change. It will take a while but we will see a generational change that will change outcomes for our first Americans.

You've called your bill a bipartisan bill. I've heard the term working from the middle regarding this bill can you explain?

I think if we simply start finger wagging and talking about 'you didn't do this,' or 'you didn't do that,' and instead we start from the middle and identify this as a problem – we can say 'here is a problem, let's think of new solutions.' This isn't something that anyone in Congress should walk away from.

Interestingly enough, a lot of times we get involved in things where you can argue with state governments but because of treaty obligations and because of the unique relationship the federal government has with tribal governments, i.e. many times being the major law enforcement agency – we have a unique responsibility.

I tell folks where we need federal law enforcement in North Dakota is on reservations. That's where they have major crime investigative responsibilities.

We've got to understand the importance of taking responsibility. This is what we are saying initially, 'let's take responsibility, but let's not do the same old thing that we have always done. Let's not go into the room and start pointing fingers, let's change things. I have seen – working in the middle – dramatic changes in public policy that have effect whether it is tobacco control policies that have reduced the rates of smoking dramatically in my lifetime, whether it is taking a look at the Violence Against Women Act that has dramatically reduced the instances of violence against women – where it has been effective because it has not been effective in Indian country, because Indian women have not been protected in the past – I have seen coming together for good cause can make a difference.

But it cannot start from a negative point; it has to start from a positive hopeful point if we want to get something done. That's what we believe the commission does – and the great thing is we have had a chance to name this commission for two great Indian education leaders, the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children.

Alyce Spotted Bear was one of my favorite people in the whole wide world who had the wisdom beyond three years unfortunately we lost her way too early.

I'd like to believe because I know the spiritual nature of many Native people that this means something and that will give it a good start – having it named for two first Americans.

For a summary of the bill, click here. For quotations from national supporters, click here.

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