Courtesy Senator Heitkamp
North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp has just announced a few initiatives to combat the impact of trauma on today’s youth, with a special emphasis on Native children.

Sen. Heitkamp to Host Hearing on Trauma – Launches Trauma Website

Vincent Schilling

North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp has just announced a few initiatives to combat the impact of trauma on today’s youth, with a special emphasis on Native children.

Heitkamp’s office launched a website Monday that details the impact of trauma, contains statistics on how multiple traumatic experiences can harm a young person’s health as they grow older, and outlines Sen. Heitkamp’s work to combat the impact of historic trauma.

Sen. Heitkamp will host the first-ever Senate Committee on Indian Affairs field hearing on trauma on Wednesday in Bismarck.

In December, she wrote to HHS requesting a comprehensive, agency-wide approach to address trauma, and in February HHS heeded her call, designating Lillian Sparks Robinson to head efforts to deal with this issue. She will participate in Wednesday’s hearing as the newly-named Commissioner, Administration for Native Americans, and Administration for Children & Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In an interview with ICTMN, Sen. Heitkamp -- who has worked to educate members of Congress on trauma, hosting a series of learning sessions on the science of trauma, the impact of trauma, and the policies Congress can implement to combat it – discussed what she hoped to accomplish on Wednesday.

Why do you find it so important to host a hearing on trauma?

I think we need to realize what a critical role both historic trauma and trauma that happens in young people's lives, whether it is exposure to addiction, disruption in family or abuse, or poverty.

We know there are actual physical consequences of toxic trauma. We can be hopeful if we start recognizing the impacts of childhood trauma and historic trauma -- and the effect they have on the ability to achieve.

They've done this in Menominee, Wisconsin with incredible results. We are going to hear from them.

And if we know there is trauma, what opportunities do we have for treatment of trauma that could result in better outcomes.

How can addressing this issue at a governmental level be helpful to Native youth?

North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp with Champion for Change Danielle Finn.  (Courtesy Photo)

I think number one, already you see trauma-based programs in Head Start programs. That early childhood intervention is work that we need to be doing, we need to have these early interventions during a critical period of brain development to prevent these kinds of traumas from having long-term health consequences for children.

We need to make sure Indian health is based in trauma and we need to make sure Indian education has adopted  models similar to what we see in the Menominee that are very successful. We need to realize there are treatments for trauma that can change the life of a student.

I have heard many times that Native youth feel less important due to such things as sports team mascots.

That certainly can serve as a factor but I think for the most part the biggest factor is the effect of poverty.

There are such high rates of poverty in Indian country that we need to look at economic opportunity. This is difficult because it is hard to get out of poverty when you are a child who has been traumatized. So the question is, how do you break that cycle? This can include being a victim of racist behavior, there is no doubt that is an assault and emotional abuse.

But of course this isn't the only indicator, there are so many other things that happen in children's lives that need to be addressed. But we need to start somewhere in breaking the cycle of toxic trauma.

Have you had any support from Native communities?

North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp at the Fort Yates pow wow. (Courtesy Photo)

Oh absolutely. There are so many native communities that really understand that the effect of historic trauma and what that means long-term. I think everyone is looking for solutions to these very challenging problems. The more grandmas we get involved, the better.

The livelihood of Native youth is something you feel strongly about - why?

I think all children in this country matter. I think in many ways Native children living in Indian country are not given a second thought by people. When you look at the conditions and the victimization, the high rates of suicide, native children are potentially the greatest children at risk in this country.

If we are going to be successful in North Dakota, with a high population of native kids, we want everyone -- success breeds success. I have been involved in this issue for a lot of years and I'd love to say things are better than they were in the ‘90s, but I'm not convinced. I think the advent of meth and drug abuse have really created huge challenges for many of our Native communities, and we will be talking a lot about this as well.

What do you hope to accomplish?

I hope to build awareness, to build an appreciation for the kind of science and research-based information that we know can change outcomes. This will give us a different perspective and form better policies. There are so many good people working on this, we can change outcomes if we just learn and grow together.

We are very excited about this field hearing, it is not just an Indian country issue, but it is particularly prevalent giving the high rates of poverty and historical trauma among Native American children.

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