Governnent Act Will Benefit Native Children

Donna Ennis

On October 14, President Obama signed into law S. 246, the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children Act, which will create the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native children. The Commission is named in honor of Alyce Spotted Bear, former tribal chairwoman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation in North Dakota and Walter Soboleff, Alaskan Native Elder and statesman from the Tlingit tribe in Alaska.In his remarks the President stated: “The Commission is tasked with the important work of undertaking a comprehensive study of Federal, State, and local and tribal programs that serve Native children, and making recommendations on how those programs can be improved. Over the past 8 years, my Administration has been committed to working closely with tribes to strengthen our nation-to-nation relationships and to forge a brighter future for all of our children…I am proud of the progress we have made over the past 8 years. I applaud the Congress, and in particular Senator Heitkamp, for the efforts that made this new law possible.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp D-ND, who first introduced the bill in 2013 with Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said “There is a whole group of children in this country who have been neglected for too long. We’ve got to stop looking at these problems from a silo. All across the board in the federal system, each agency has a little piece of this. It has led to, I think, disjointed programming that has really frustrated the tribes themselves.” Tribal governments face numerous obstacles in responding to the needs of Native children.

Russ McDonald, president of United Tribes Technical College and former chairman of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation, testified in support of the legislation, McDonald said he likes that it’s a data-driven initiative to find solutions to help native youth who face higher rates of poverty and socioeconomic issues. “By doing this, you’re able to see if there are gaps within that system,” McDonald said. On behalf of the National Congress of American Indians, Sault Tribe Chairperson Aaron Payment testified to Congress on S.246 saying, “Too often the programs impacting our youth are fragmented and communication across agencies and government is lacking or non-existent. This results in an incomplete view of the issues facing youth and recommended solutions which only deal with a part of the problem.

“The circumstances are absolutely dire for Indian children,” said Theresa M. Pouley, the chief judge of the Tulalip Tribal Court in Washington State and a member of the Indian Law and Order Commission. “One quarter of Indian children lives in poverty, versus 13 percent in the United States. They graduate high school at a rate 17 percent lower than the national average. Their substance-abuse rates are higher. They’re twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24. They have two times the rate of abuse and neglect. Their experience with post-traumatic stress disorder rivals the rates of returning veterans from Afghanistan.” Dr. Tami DeCoteau, a clinical psychologist in Bismarck who specializes in trauma-informed care, said she treats many Native American children in the foster care system that have suffered multiple types of trauma, such as traumatic separation, grief and other incidents. “That really influences how they function in all areas of their life,” she said. DeCoteau said she hopes the commission’s work will help leaders understand how historical trauma affects Native American children and identify strategies to make progress with that population. “Once more people see that in quantifiable data, it will evoke the compassion and humanity and the common sense and more people will support programs for Indian children,” she said.

The commission must conduct a comprehensive study of federal, state, local, and tribal programs that serve Native children ultimately creating a platform for a national dialogue on the state of Native youth in Indian Country. Experts in the areas of juvenile justice, social work, education, and mental and physical health will be brought together to identify the complex challenges facing Native youth.

The bill provides for a Commission consisting of three individuals appointed by the President and eight individuals appointed by congressional leaders, and would place this Commission in a specific office within the Department of Justice. Obama stated, “While I welcome the creation of this Commission, it cannot be located in the executive branch consistent with the separation of powers because it includes legislative branch appointees (who here are empowered to direct other executive branch agencies to provide additional resources to the Commission). I am therefore instructing the Attorney General to treat the Commission as an independent entity, separate from the executive branch. Upon signing the bill my Administration will begine seeking appointments for the Commission from the Congress so we can implement this legislation as soon as possible. I look forward to seeing the Commission’s work in the years to come – work that will help ensure all our young people can help reach their full potential.”

Donna Ennis is the Community Center Manager for Fond du Lac Reservation where she is also a respected tribal elder. She is working on her Master’s degree in Tribal Administration and Governance at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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