U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) today welcomed President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to Indian country in North Dakota. The President and First Lady's visit will enable Native Americans in the state to show their culture and history, and it will also help shine a light on the challenges many Native American families face, such as high rates of poverty, suicide, and abuse, and the lack of housing.
The President and First Lady will visit North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Friday, June 13. Heitkamp will join the President and First Lady during their visit to Standing Rock. The last time a sitting president visited Indian country was in 1999 when President Bill Clinton went to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
"The President and First Lady's visit is a milestone for Indian country and I welcome them to my state. This trip will enable North Dakota to show off the rich culture, history, and traditions of our tribes, while also raising awareness about the challenges too many Native American families face, such as extreme poverty and abuse. I've been able to spend a great deal of time in Indian country over the years and have seen both the community spirit as well as the problems facing our tribes," said Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "The fact that the child mortality rate nationwide has decreased, while it has increased by 15 percent among Native children is deeply disturbing. It's one of the many reasons why I introduced my bill to stand up for Native children. While I may not agree with the President on some issues, we both absolutely agree that giving Native families and children every chance to succeed is imperative. I look forward to joining him on his visit to Standing Rock."
Background about Heitkamp's work for Native American families and children:
Since her time as North Dakota's Attorney General in the 1990s, Heitkamp has been a strong and vocal advocate for North Dakota's tribes.
Last year, she introduced her first bill in the U.S. Senate which aims to create a Commission on Native Children to conduct an intensive study into issues facing Native children – such as high rates of poverty, staggering unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and few economic opportunities – and make recommendations on how to make sure Native children are better taken care of and given the opportunities to thrive. Just two weeks ago, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – the final step before it goes to the Senate for a vote. The bill has 27 bipartisan cosponsors, and the strong support of all five North Dakota tribes and many national Native American organizations.
Heitkamp played a key role in improving and passing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The legislation was one of the first bills Heitkamp cosponsored as a U.S. Senator. The law included language Heitkamp specifically pushed for to provide tribal governments the authority they need to prosecute non-Native perpetrators who commit these crimes on tribal land. This provision aims to help protect women in tribal communities who face domestic violence and sexual assault at much higher rates than those faced by the general population.
Heitkamp also helped introduce legislation to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture through education programs. The bill would establish a grant program to support Native language immersion instruction from pre-Kindergarten through college. Without people who speak these languages, the languages have the potential of disappearing.
In December 2013, Heitkamp participated in the first hearing of the U.S. Department of Justice's Task Force on American Indian/Alaskan Native Children Exposed to Violence which took place in Bismarck, North Dakota. The taskforce – which complements Heitkamp's Commission on Native Children bill – aims to bring to light Native children's exposure to violence in the home, problems of child sexual abuse and domestic violence, and the impact of alcoholism and drug usage.