“Native Americans maintain vibrant cultures and traditions and hold a deeply rooted sense of community.”
These words ring true and with a rare bit of bipartisanship, they were entered in the Congressional Record last week as Congress passed a Resolution declaring November “Native American Heritage Month.”
As vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I believe it’s critical that folks across the country recognize the contributions Native Americans have made and continue to make across our nation.
Native Americans have moving stories of tragedy, triumph, and perseverance that need to be shared with future generations.
That’s why this resolution honors the countless generations of Native Americans that shaped the world we live in today.
But this resolution is not enough.
I am from the high plains of northcentral Montana, where talk is cheap, and people are judged by their actions.
In order to properly honor Indian Country, more must be done by folks on the ground with the help of Congress to increase opportunity and create good-paying jobs in Native American communities.
That is why I am working on issues important to Native American families that will increase self-governance, promote tribal sovereignty, strengthen Indian communities, and ensure the federal government upholds its trust responsibilities.
I’m working to right the wrongs done by the Carcieri Supreme Court decision to ensure all tribes can take land into trust and I’ve introduced the Native American Voting Rights Act to ensure Indian country has a voice in our elections and government.
But, more than anything, Congress must do more to improve education in Indian Country so every student has a path to a good-paying job.
That's why I’ve introduced a bill that will recruit and retain more quality teachers to Native American schools, and I’m fighting to invest over $150 million into BIE schools which are chronically underfunded allowing children to fall behind.
We must also ensure that the education children receive is culturally relevant, and that’s why I introduced legislation that will expand native language programs to better connect students with their rich heritage and help keep their traditions and culture alive.
I’ve also introduced a bill to improve and expand afterschool programs for Indian children to ensure these kids keep learning beyond the classroom.
If we can get these things done it will increase graduation rates and put more students on the path to college—making them even more prepared to enter the workforce.
But I need help, and I can’t do it alone. Increasing self-determination and opportunity in Indian Country needs to be driven by folks on the ground. And you have my word that I will be your partner in that fight.
So during Native American Heritage Month join me in urging folks in Congress to follow their words with action and do right by Indian Country.
Jon Tester is a third-generation Montana farmer and the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.