A picture of Senator Heidi Heitkamp
Heidi H.
Democrat ND

About Sen. Heidi
  • Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

    by Senator Heidi Heitkamp

    Posted on 2015-01-22

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    HEITKAMP (for herself, Ms. Murkowski, Mr. Tester, Ms. Hirono, Mr. Schatz, Mrs. Feinstein, Mr. Franken, Mr. Hoeven, Mr. Udall, Ms. Klobuchar, Mrs. Murray, Mr. Thune, Ms. Warren, Mr. Heinrich, Mr. Moran, Mr. Whitehouse, Mr. Blumenthal, Ms. Collins, Mrs. Boxer, Mrs. Fischer, Ms. Stabenow, Ms. Cantwell, Ms. Baldwin, and Mrs. Shaheen): S. 246. A bill to establish the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Indian Affairs.

    Ms. HEITKAMP. Mr. President, for those of us who are parents, we should want to make sure all of our children have the same opportunities as other children. This starts with a quality education, a safe and secure home, access to quality health care, and a community free of violence. These are deeply important issues. But too often, talk about protecting our Native children is left out of the conversation. Native children are too often considered ``them'' and not part of ``us.'' That needs to change--in fact, it must change. Unfortunately, for children in our nation's tribal communities, opportunities for success are often out of reach. As a result, Native children are sadly the most at-risk population in the country and face serious disparities.

    The Federal Government has a trust responsibility to provide for the education, health, and safety of Native children. But for far too long, we have failed to live up to this promise. We are failing by not keeping them safe, healthy, or providing them with educational opportunities necessary to reach their full potential.

    Native children have the third highest rate of being abused. They are overrepresented in foster care, more than 2.1 times the general population. Child mortality has increased 15 percent among Native children, while the rate among all American children has decreased by 9 percent since 2000. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native young adults ages 15 to 24 years old, 2.5 times the national average. The graduation rate for Native high school students hovers around 50 percent compared to 75 percent for white students. These numbers are simply staggering arid they are the direct result of growing up in communities that face significant challenges, high rates of poverty, staggering unemployment, child abuse and domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and few economic opportunities.

    I have spent a great deal of time on Indian reservations in North Dakota. I [[Page S423]] am humbled to always be welcomed with open arms and treated like family. The tribes have a cultural sense about the need to defend their children. But because of the lack of resources, the stories are still incredibly jarring. I have seen firsthand the obstacles tribal governments confront in responding to the needs of Native children. Existing program rules and the volume of resources required to access current grant opportunities stymie efforts of tribes to tackle the underlying issues impacting our Native children. At the same time, federal agencies lack clear guidance about the direction that should be taken to best address the needs of Native children to fulfill our nation's treaty and trust responsibility to tribal nations. It is clear that Native children are suffering as a result.

    Too many times I have heard stories about Native children in North Dakota placed in juvenile detention centers for offenses that would likely not result in incarceration, except for the fact that they are Native American. I heard a story about a teenage girl in detention because of substance addiction. She wants to get the health counseling she needs, but hasn't been given enough support, as too often there aren't enough resources available. She wants to go to school and get to the correct grade level, but is now already two grades behind and is continuing to fall further back while in detention. Without anyone looking to help, she will likely fall further back. This is just one story. But there are too many like it. Unless we act, we are turning our backs on Native children throughout the country.

    I am determined to work to reverse these trends and end these terrible stories. We need to strive for a day when Native children no longer live in third-world conditions; where they don't face the threat of abuse on a daily basis; where they receive the good health care and education that help them grow and succeed. I will pledge to work to give these to today's Native children and future generations.

    To begin this effort, I am proud to introduce the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children. Since joining the Senate, I have talked about the importance of working across the aisle to get things done. That's why this is a bipartisan bill, as Senator Murkowski from Alaska has joined me in this effort, along with 20 of our colleagues. Our bill aims to address the sweeping challenges that Native Americans face by creating a Federal Commission on Native Children. It would begin a national conversation about the state of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children. It is a conversation that is long overdue.

    The commission will be directed to complete a comprehensive study on the programs, grants, and support available for Native children, both at the federal level and on the ground in Native communities. Right now, so many of these details are lacking, which makes it more difficult for the Federal Government to determine what kind of support is needed. Then, the 11 member Commission will issue a report on how to address the series of challenges currently facing Native children. It is my hope that the recommendations will lead to the development of a sustainable system to provide wrap-around services and support our Native children, and also reverse the troubling statistics that have become all too familiar.

    I believe it is telling that this bill has received a great deal of support. I want to thank the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Health Board, the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and the National Indian Education Association, which have endorsed the bill, as has the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association, and the five tribes in my state of North Dakota.

    Additionally, this Commission is named in part after my dear friend, the late Dr. Alyce Spotted Bear, who passed away in 2013 after a hard fought battle with cancer--and Walter Soboleff from the Tlingit tribe in Alaska. Alyce was a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Ankara Nation in North Dakota and served as Chairwoman from November 1982 to March 1987. She was an inspiration to all who knew her and a great leader--in North Dakota and throughout the country. She was an educator dedicated to enabling Native students to succeed academically and making sure Native American cultures thrive. She was a mother, to her children, as well as her students and her community. In recognition of her expertise in the field, President Obama appointed her as a member to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education. And at the time of her passing, Alyce served as Vice President of Native American Studies and Tribal Relations at the Fort Berthold Community College in New Town, North Dakota. I hope this Commission will be able to live up to the great legacy she left behind, and also help complete some of her work for Native children.

    As Sitting Bull once said ``Let us put our minds together to see what we can build for our children.'' That is exactly what this Commission will do, and I hope my colleagues will join us in supporting this important effort.


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