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Protecting Native Children: Heitkamp Gets Big Bill Through Senate

The Senate unanimously passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Sen. Lisa Murkowski that would create a Commission on Native Children.

A bill sponsored by U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) to improve the lives of Native children was unanimously passed on June 8 by the Senate after receiving unanimous approval in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in February.

The bill would create a Commission on Native Children that – according to a release by Heitkamp’ staff – “would work to identify the complex challenges faced by Native children in North Dakota and across the United States by conducting an intensive study on these issues – including high rates of poverty, staggering unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and dire economic opportunities – and making recommendations on how to make sure Native children get the protections, as well as economic and educational tools they need to thrive.”

RELATED: Sen. Heitkamp Discusses the Need for a Commission on Native Children

In the release, Heitkamp writes, “For generations, children on tribal lands have lived with the odds stacked against them, relegated to the shadows of our society and the peripheries of our federal resources. Despite being saddled with challenges no child should ever face – our Native kids are determined to persevere. Today, the Senate spoke with a strong, united voice and passed my bill – the first bill I introduced in the Senate – to give our Native youth that fighting chance.”

Heitkamp told ICTMN there is growing awareness of the needs of our country’s Native youth. “Anyone who has been to Indian country knows that we have a unique obligation to protect our children, because for many of them the federal government is their primary prosecutor and primary investigator of crimes.”

In its press release, Heitkamp’s office included a summary of what the commission would offer in terms of programs, grants and resources that would be made available to Native youth to include the following:

— Better Use of Existing Resources – The Commission would identify ways to streamline federal, state, and local programs to be more effective and give tribes greater flexibility to devise programs for their communities in the spirit of self-determination and allow government agencies to redirect resources to the areas of most need.

— Increased Coordination – The Commission would seek to improve coordination of programs benefiting Native children. The federal has programs across numerous and varying agencies, yet these programs too often do not coordinate.

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— Measurable Outcomes – The Commission would recommend measures to determine the wellbeing of Native children, and use these measurements to propose short-term, mid-term, and long-term national policy goals.

— Stronger Data – The Commission would seek to develop better data collection methods. Too often Native children are left out of the conversation because existing data collection, reporting, and analysis practices exclude them.

— Stronger Private Sector Partnerships – The Commission would seek to identify obstacles to public-private partnerships in Native communities.

— Implementation of Best Practices – The Commission would identify and highlight successful models that can be adopted in Native communities.

“This is probably not a statement that would roll off a lot of new senator’s tongues, but this is the highest priority for me when I first came here, behind [only] the economic stuff I do for the state of North Dakota,” Heitkamp said.

“I promised Alice Spotted Bears' family that the blanket they gave me at the ceremony when we introduced the bill – that we are going to give it to the president when he signs the bill,” Heitkamp said. “That will be a wonderful reminder of his commitment to Native kids.”

For more information or for a summary of the bill, click here.

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