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Heidi Heitkamp: Taking the Senate Race to Native North Dakota

North Dakota’s Democratic Senate candidate, Heidi Heitkamp, is working hard for the Native vote. With five reservations and nearly 40,000 Indian people living in the state, Natives make up 5.4 percent of the state’s residents, its largest minority population. The former state attorney general, who lives with her family in Mandan, 70 miles from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, is focusing on the needs and concerns of the Indian communities she hopes to represent in Washington.

Heitkamp’s many Native supporters believe she isn’t simply courting the Indian vote, but truly understands Native priorities. Her platform is built upon the guiding principles of tribal sovereignty and dual citizenship, and Heitkamp says that years of legal service in and around Indian country have sharpened her understanding of Indian law and issues.

A director of Dakota Gasificaton, a manufacturer of synthetic natural gas from coal, Heitkamp is an assertive and tough competitor and no stranger to politics.

Once an attorney with the Environmental Protection Agency, she was elected North Dakota Tax Commissioner in 1986 and then state attorney general in 1992. As the state’s chief law officer, she secured a substantial monetary settlement for North Dakotans in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. In 2000, she ran an aggressive campaign for governor, during which she retreated briefly while undergoing breast cancer surgery. Even still, she managed to pull in 45 percent of the vote. Now, she is facing off with Republican Congressman Rick Berg, a House representative since 1981 and Congressman since 2010.

As a cancer survivor, Heitkamp offers support for women fighting the disease. She recently suggested that her opponent will do women a disservice by voting against President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan, prompting a swift response from Berg’s supporters.

“Do we want to elect someone who would win by playing the victim to distract from the less savory aspects of her campaign, like her support for Obamacare (or) for President Obama?” asked Say Anything Blog, Berg’s major support network. Berg has said very little about the issue, and hasn’t mentioned his Senate objectives for North Dakota Natives either.

Heitkamp, however, is surprisingly aggressive on Indian issues. “Fulfilling treaty obligations we made years ago is one of the greatest contributions we can make to Indian well-being,” she claims.

“So much of what is done here involves treaty rights, an attorney general has to understand tribal and state law enforcement issues,” she says, “but many North Dakotans do not understand them. Unfortunately, neither do most state representatives. Working with our tribes has put me in a great position to represent them in the Senate.”

For many, her crusade in Indian country has taken on a deeper significance than the occasional lip-service tribes are accustomed to receiving from politicians. She spends quality time with tribal elders, politicians, veterans, healthcare advocates, business strategists, social service advisers, and Indian student organizations on college campuses. During these meetings she listens rather than campaigns, asserting that by doing so, she has formed comprehensive ideas on how to meet Native needs.

Heitkamp sees the need for national Native representation. Since the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is the focal point of congressional Indian policy, she vows that if elected, her first priority will be to seek a seat on it. Oil frenzy around the lands of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, have made federal representation crucial. She also believes in including tribes in decision-making processes, and therefore proposes quarterly meetings with tribal leaders to keep them informed and solicit their suggestions for problem solving.

Locally, Heitkamp also focuses on common problems that plague all Indian communities; healthcare, economics, jobs, education, business development, law enforcement, and infrastructure.

If elected, she vows to fight to preserve the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act, a core issue of her Indian campaign. The act was signed into law by President Obama in 2010 under the umbrella of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Representatives, who voted against the Indian health bill, claim it was used to garner support for Obamacare. Heitkamp, however, contends it must be preserved.

“In order for healthcare to be adequate it must be accessible, right?” she asks. “How is it accessible if you have to drive hundreds of miles to get it?”

In contrast, when a state delegation, including Berg, met with North Dakota and Indian healthcare providers in Washington, D.C. in 2012, their concern was for the Indian Health Service’s unpaid reimbursement obligations to state providers rather than the needs of Indian patients.

“We appreciate all the work IHS has done to improve the process,” the delegation said in a joint statement, “still, it is clear more must be done to improve timely and accurate reimbursement for our hospitals to ensure Native Americans continue to receive reliable access to quality care.”

Housing is another concern on Heitkamp’s list of objectives for North Dakota tribes. She says the federal government has failed Native families by not providing sufficient support for housing. “One of the biggest challenges our tribes face is the housing crisis,” she says. “Decent housing is a basic human right for all Americans.”

She also cites a need for equitable educational opportunities, calling them “the key to continued development of Indian communities.” Arguing that antiquated Indian education needs updating, she challenges Congress to invest in enhancement of curriculum materials and teaching, as well as classrooms and school buildings.

“We must make that investment to help raise Indian citizens to the level of middle class,” she points out. “We can’t be successful in North Dakota until all of our communities are economically viable.”

Nevertheless, she believes self-determination is serious business, and says Indians have the same right to choose the future they want for themselves as other North Dakotans do.

Tribal colleges must take the lead in developing programs that fulfill specific needs and desires of their students. But in order to succeed, they need funding. The question isn’t what kinds of opportunities exist for tribes, but whether or not the government will support them in their endeavors by fulfilling treaty obligations to help achieve their goals.”

Although Heitkamp believes relationships between North Dakota and the tribes are better than many other states, she concedes that relationship-building is a tough and ongoing responsibility. “Historically, our relationships have been good, but we must continue to reach across the table. I’ve always made sure we have a tribal contingency on issues we’ve worked on, and will continue to do so as senator,” she says.

“We must ensure that Indians across the state enjoy the same basic standard of living as other North Dakotans. Part of that standard is based on economic opportunities.” She says basic job training or skill enhancement is not adequate. “We must also focus on manufacturing and high-tech training and support innovative programs that help get new private-sector ventures off the ground. There are tribal members who want to develop entrepreneurship, making improved relationships between tribal and state governments and tribal members essential.”

Communication and accountability between tribal, state, and federal law enforcement is another of Heitkamp’s talking points. She sees urgent need for comprehensive legislation for public safety on reservations, especially around Fort Berthold where the oil industry has created mayhem.

In April 2012, Congressman Berg visited the Fort Berthold Reservation with Sens. Kent Conrad and John Hoeven. During their visit, little was said about the darker side of the oil boom. Instead, they focused on keeping the industry humming. “A growing energy sector has opened the door for new economic opportunity, good paying jobs, and increased revenue for the Three Affiliated Tribes,” Berg said, “we need to ensure that common sense policies are in place that encourage the continued production of the region’s natural resources… we must continue working to streamline the leasing, permitting, and royalty processes on both tribal and allotted lands and take steps to ensure that regulatory complexity does not slow down oil and gas exploration on North Dakota’s reservations.”

“The Fort Berthold situation is appalling,” Heitkamp counters. “Traffic is a mess, crime is rising, and neither tribal nor state law enforcement is adequate enough. Furthermore, rising violence against women is a problem that must be addressed. Women and children need protection, but jurisdiction complicates the matter. Today, Native women are 3.5 times more likely to be victims of abuse than any other group.”

Heitkamp supports passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and criticizes Berg for not supporting it. If elected, she also vows to urge the state to adopt human rights and anti-discrimination laws to enhance protection of Native populations.

The candidates also differ in their views on the abilities of tribal legal governance.

Under VAWA, perpetrators could be brought to justice in tribal courts, regardless of race. “The jurisdictional maze between agencies means women on reservations have no protection against non-tribal abusers. I believe as tribal courts hold violent people accountable, more victims will come forth to press charges," Heitkamp says.

Berg hasn’t addressed the issue specifically, but his supporters do not support tribal courts. According to Say Anything Blog, “A lot of tribal court judges are not trained in the law, yet they can put people in jail for as long as a year. Members of Indian tribes can vote for state judges, but non-tribal members have no say over tribal judges. Most egregiously of all, tribal court juries are made up tribal members. Thus, a non-tribal member cannot by definition be tried by a jury of his/her peers which is the standard established by the Constitution and the Supreme Court.”

Finally, Heitkamp offers advice to those who don’t vote, believing their vote doesn’t count or elected officials won’t keep promises. “It’s important for everyone to vote—no matter who you vote for. But voting is only half of the solution—accountability is the other. Get out, vote, and then remind your representatives of their responsibility to work for you. Don’t lose hope. Elect a candidate who’s going to do the job.”