Honoring the many contributions of the First Americans


This time of year, all Americans are reminded of the vital role the First Americans played in helping the Pilgrims and other early Europeans survive after they arrived on the North American continent. But the contributions to our country by Native Americans go far beyond that. Native Americans have been innovators and leaders in a wide range of fields as varied as agriculture, sports, politics and government, medicine, music, national security, language, and art to name just a few.

Two cases in point: Indian Tribes, particularly the Iroquois Confederacy, influenced the founding documents of our federal government. Nearly 200 years later, Native Americans helped us win World War II and preserve our nation – and the free world – through the use of Native languages they used to develop a military message code our enemies were never able to break.

The President proclaimed last month, November, National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. His proclamation asked all Americans to pause during the month to remember and honor the many contributions Native Americans have made to our country and our culture.

Celebrating what Native Americans have done to strengthen and enrich our country is very important, and I’m grateful for the observances that occurred in November. But it is important to remember that honoring Native Americans should not be – and is not – limited to just one month. For example, this year Congress passed into law the Code Talkers Recognition Act which provides long-deserved Congressional gold medals to each tribe that had members who were Code Talkers in any foreign conflict. Each next of kin to the valiant Code Talker who served their country will receive a silver duplicate.

Congress also passed the Native American $1 Coin Act, which recognizes the contributions of Native Americans to the development and history of the United States through an annually changing image on the reverse of the Sacagawea $1 coin now in circulation.

As Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I firmly believe that another way we can recognize and honor Native Americans is for the federal government to do something much more basic – keep its treaty promises and obligations to Native Americans.

We made major progress on that front this year when Congress approved, and the President signed the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. Among other things, this Act reauthorized the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act, increasing the amount of money per student in tribal colleges and universities. We also asked the General Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct an evaluation of public schools on Indian lands to help Congress in meeting its obligations to Indian education.

Congress also passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act allowing Tribes for the first time to directly administer foster care and adoption programs offered by the Federal government. The new law allows tribes to continue strengthening their communities by ensuring safe and caring homes for Native children.

There is much more to do. In my view, first on that “to-do” list ought to be enacting the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The Senate passed that legislation this year, but the bill was held up in the House. I intend to use my Chairmanship of the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee to send it to the White House in the coming Congress.

During the month of November, I joined all Americans in remembering, honoring and celebrating the rich history and many contributions to American life by Native Americans. But I also think it is important for the United States federal government to remember the many treaty obligations that it owes to tribal governments and Native Americans. Doing this will make honoring the First Americans what it really needs to be – a year round activity.

U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) is Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.