U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp is the first female elected from North Dakota. Since taking the oath of office on January 3, 2013, Heitkamp has shown herself to be a strong advocate fighting for the needs of Indian country as she has been since her role as state Attorney General beginning in 1990.
As a member on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Heitkamp has pledged to stand for Native American families and has worked to ensure the U.S. government lives up to treaty and trust responsibilities.
Last October, Heitkamp introduced a bill to improve the lives of Native American children that has received bipartisan support as well as another bill with Republican Senator Moran that would end the IRS’ practice of taxing crucial programs and services that aim to support the health and safety of Native families. Additionally she is an advocate for the Violence Against Women Act and better transportation and infrastructure on reservations.
In a conversation with ICTMN, Heitkamp shared her stance on the importance of working for the betterment of Indian country and why we should all fight for the needs of our children.
Can you tell us about your bill regarding the Commission on Native Children?
I don't think there's any aspect of Indian country that would be left untouched as we talk about children. It really comes to me from the words of Sitting Bull, who said "Let us now sit down and decide what kind of life we can make for our children," I am paraphrasing, but if we stay focused on kids and our children we will make good choices and we will hopefully get better attention to the challenges for Native American families.
The important part of this commission is that we need to be looking at it from a holistic standpoint. You see people talk about Indian education or protection of our children or health care for our children or making sure that we have good transportation so that our kids can get to school. All of these things have a direct effect, but we worry about the programs and not about the outcomes.
For instance, I feel that Native languages are a huge component of the child bill because I think it is a way that we begin to grasp that cultural connection to heal families to provide the pride to move forward.
You played a key role in the Violence Against Women Act, you specifically pushed for tribal governments to gain authority to prosecute non-Native perpetrators, how are things going?
Currently three tribal courts have been selected as a sort of first pass – from there we will learn what tribal courts need to do as a court that has the authority and the jurisdiction to act over non-Native offenders.
We are taking those first steps but it is not enough to pass legislation. We have to be vigilant about making sure that that legislation is given its full effect. I think at this point, We are all grateful this is on track but we need to make sure that these test pilot tribal courts work.
None of these courts are in my state, I am really looking forward to seeing this implemented in my state so that Native American women do not and are not treated as second class citizens as it relates to the pursuit of justice.
I spent a lot of my time as Attorney General with domestic violence programs and it was one of the reasons why I ran for AG.
Can you speak on transportation infrastructure on reservations?
Obviously we are always road challenged in North Dakota. It doesn't matter if you are at Township – We have issues with roads just given our weather patterns. One of the concerns that I have, Are the stories such as roads not getting plowed so that children cannot go to school or maybe grandma needs to get in for her diabetes treatment, but she cannot get out for groceries.
The frustration that I have is that we probably could see better cooperation between County and State officials along with tribal authorities – but the federal highway folks need to step up and do a better job allocating resources.
There is a great deal of concern about retention of overhead costs, so that these dollars don't actually go back to the tribes, but are retained within the programs in Washington, D.C.
I realize that when we talk about roads, it is not going to fill up the room, but it might be (what is) most important to a Native American family. It is so important that we talk about this now as we're looking at, again, reauthorizing the Highway Bill.
You are working to end the taxation of tribal programs through the IRS with Sen. Moran, can you explain?
We are very concerned about an IRS agent questioning the judgment of a sovereign entity as they relate to what constitutes general welfare. I think there's a fair amount of a lack of understanding as to what tribal governments do and how culturally significant a lot of this is. To suggest that a family who receives funeral dinner and funeral services aught to be taxed on those services is to ignore the pervasive poverty on a reservation, but also it ignores the cultural significance of that expenditure.
I think that this is a great bipartisan effort. We hope that the IRS is starting to get it, but it is more important that we are not fighting this fight a year from now or two years from now and that we get some federal legislation that makes the intent of Congress clear in that it respects tribal sovereignty as it relates to their expenditure decisions.
One of the 2014 Champions for Change is your intern Danielle Finn.
She is a star! We are a little biased in that she is an intern in our office. She is going off to law school; she has tons of options. We are so proud of her and her family is so proud of her. We are just excited to see across the board that these champions for change are part of a hopeful program.
We see all of this wonderful opportunity for expansion of tribal leadership and it really makes us hopeful that there are so many people. I think we need to remember that there are some kids who are getting left behind. We need to celebrate these superstars and amazing kids, but we also need to know there are also very many students And young people who with the right set of circumstances could have equal achievement.
That motivates me as well. When you see these Champions For Change and think that it is not just them but there are probably hundreds of champions for change when given an opportunity.
We just need to keep that in mind and this is what my child's commission bill is all about.