What’s Next? Former Senator Heidi Heitkamp talks with Indian Country Today

Vincent Schilling

Heidi Heitkamp: ‘My focus will be on what improves the opportunities for generations into the future.’

In the midterm elections in November of 2018, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s term ended with the election of Republican candidate Kevin Cramer. The state is strongly conservative, and President Trump had campaigned for Cramer to win the race.

Heitkamp served to complete many initiatives for the betterment of Indian Country, and many in her state have vocally mourned the loss of an ally for Native peoples. One of her important pieces of legislation that was stalled in Congress in the last session of 2018, was Savanna’s Act, legislation that would improve communications between federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies to address the growing problem of missing and murdered Native American women and girls.

Heitkamp’s legacy maintained its trajectory as Savanna’s Act was just reintroduced to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs by Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on Monday. Murkowski, who originally co-sponsored the legislation with Heitkamp during Heitkamp’s term, kept a promise to keep the bill moving forward.

Previous story: Sen. Murkowski keeps promise to Heidi Heitkamp, reintroduces Savanna’s Act

In addition to Savanna’s Act, Heitkamp worked to champion several efforts for the benefits of Indian Country to include creating a Commission on Native Children, introducing a bill to create Amber Alerts in Indian Country, working to create protections for Native women through the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and a bill to combat and address childhood trauma.

Recently, The McCain Institute announced that Heitkamp will join that board. A few weeks ago it was announced that Heitkamp and Gary Cohn will be teaching a class at the Kennedy School at Harvard. And she is now a contributor to CNBC.

In a conversation with Indian Country Today, Heidi Heitkamp discussed her parting thoughts, how she felt about serving as a United States Senator, her work for Indian Country, and what the future holds.

YouTube screen capture. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (ND-D) recently led an effort on social media to raise awareness about the crisis of missing and murdered Native American women with #NotInvisible. In October, Heitkamp introduced the Savanna’s Act bill to help address the crisis.

Vincent Schilling: You have had quite a run as Senator for North Dakota. What are your overall thoughts on what you have done during your term of service?

Heidi Heitkamp: I think what I would tell you, Vincent, is that I think Savanna's Act is absolutely critical to enhancing the overall general public's understanding of these challenges. I think that it has opened up a much even bigger dialogue about Indigenous people, Native Americans in our country, and the need to make sure that our First Americans aren't the last Americans. What I'm excited about right now, is that it seems like there's a whole lot of people who want to take ownership of Savanna's Act, and the more, the merrier. The more people who get engaged on that issue the better, hopefully, they won't use this as a one-off. Hopefully they'll continue to discuss housing challenges, health care challenges, the challenges that we have in Indian education, economic development, economic opportunity, and childhood trauma. There are so many other areas that show the inability of this country to live up to treaty obligations and to understand sovereignty. We've got a long, long road to walk to get to where we should be in our government-to-government relationship. I think that each one of these steps, whether it's the Commission on the status of Native American children, the amber alert or Savanna's Act which I expect will pass. Each one of these steps is a step towards justice, and hopefully there will be enough momentum. The good news obviously, is the two enrolled members elected to the House of Representatives. That is incredible news. Cole has been alone over there for a long time. I think he'll find some great partners in these two women.

Vincent Schilling: When you first started, did you foresee that you'd be able to get as much as you accomplished for Indian country?

Heitkamp: It wasn't just happenstance that my first bill was the Commission on the status of Native American kids that I did with Lisa Murkowski. That was done by design. When I was elected, I looked in the mirror, and I said, 'I used to criticize all number of federal officials for their inattention to these challenges of Indian people. Now I'm the person responsible.' I'd love to say that we got everything done that I wanted to get done. I don't think that's true. That's why it would've been great to have another term. But I'm proud that we've elevated a lot of these issues to the point where they're not just being talked about in the Indian Affairs Committee. They're being talked about outside of the Indian Affairs Committee, and I think that's a great accomplishment. Working with Lisa Murkowski, we shared that accomplishment because we were myopically focused.

Vincent Schilling: Savanna's Act has received a lot of attention. What are you hopeful for?

Heitkamp: Vincent, What we hope will happen is that this will not be the end of the discussion. Congress has a way of saying, 'Okay, we did that. Now we're going to move on.' We can't move on from the challenges that we all share and that's what I hope has opened the door to a broader discussion, not just getting Savanna's Act done, but starting to talk about Indian housing and the inability to do NAHASDA (The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996.) We need to start talking about what's happening with the Violence Against Women Act and the resistance that we still have to tribal courts having jurisdiction. We need to start talking about many of these issues in terms of parity in education and parity in healthcare. So, the challenge isn't just passing Savanna's Act, the challenge is continuing the commitment that we all should have to improve the lives of Indian people.

Vincent Schilling: Congress stalled Savanna’s Act last session, to which you were publicly vocal. You said to the Congressional members, “You're getting a paycheck, get back to work!” That was the article headline I wrote.

Heitkamp: (laughs)

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., tells a panel of law enforcement officials that efforts to prevent and solve the deaths and disappearance of Native American women must improve, during a hearing by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., listens at left. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Vincent Schilling: Any thoughts on the combined efforts you’ve made?

Heitkamp: Look at Indian healthcare. Back when Senator Tester, Senator Franken and I, and we intended it to be the three of us who challenged the administration to explain how it is that we can expand X number of dollars per person in Medicaid, but we're doing half of that in Indian health care.

I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the partnerships that I had. Senator Franken, when he was there, cared deeply about these issues and worked very closely with his tribes. I expect now that Senator Smith is on the Indian Affairs Committee to replace that Minnesota voice and also Senator Cortez-Masto. You see so many people coming to that Committee, not just to sit in the seat but are committed on the issues. I look forward to broadening that discussion so that we can get things done in the House as well. I'm really excited to watch these women, Maria Cantwell, Cortez-Masto, and Tina Smith, pick up the mantle on the democratic side and work with who is just a wonderful partner, Lisa Murkowski.

Vincent Schilling: In reflecting now, looking back on what you've done, what was maybe the biggest thing that perhaps you wish you could adjust but then what was also your most significant accomplishment?

Heitkamp: Well, we obviously didn't get Savanna's Act across the finish line, but we were able to do a number of things behind the scenes. But the thing that I think might have the longest lasting impact, depending upon how the commission turns out, is the commission on the status of Native American kids. They're just beginning that work. It was way harder than it ever should have been to stand up for that commission. And I used to tell people, 'Look, if you gave me a billion dollars, I don't know the best way to invest it. But we need to have that collaboration and that government to government relationship, and that community to community relationship. We can't just say, 'We're going to give you this program.' We've got to say, 'what works, what doesn't work.' I will continue to do work on childhood trauma. When you and I have talked about this, the level of childhood trauma and the high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores that you see on the reservation, that work will get people to understand the physiological effects of generational trauma. If you asked, 'What's number one on my agenda?' It's trying to find an ongoing place holder for the work that we started on childhood trauma.

Vincent Schilling: So you've been through two administrations. You've been through the administration who was gracious to Native people and then this administration, who many have claimed publicly to be not so gracious to Native people. What in your view is going to happen in this climate? What do people need to be mindful of?

Heitkamp: The recent shutdown is another example. Everybody's talking about the effect of the shutdown on, say, farmers? What's the impact on this group or that group? No one's talking about the effects of this kind of a shutdown on Native people. And we saw it again last time when Native American programming at the Department of Interior was disproportionately affected. When we look at what's been exempted from the shutdown, It's always those programs that are like Medicare and Medicaid. But Indian Health isn't. So we need to continue to educate on treaty rights, especially for those treaty tribes. We need to continue to teach about the challenges. What I want everyone to understand, are the impacts of trauma and how generational trauma and genocide has affected people's ability to be resilient and to be successful.

Maria Cantwell has been a champion on this, and that's making sure that tribes do not have to go hat and hand to state governments to get programming for low-income tax credits, for opioid tax credits. Tribes have a status. They are not political subdivisions of states. They are sovereign the way a state would be sovereign. I think there's a lot of work to be done on looking at programs across the board. One of the things that we were able to do, which I'm also very proud of, is to get some provisions in the Farm Bill for the tribes and those provisions hopefully will be built on. This is the work that the Shakopee have done. I think all of this federal programming; whether it is in SAMSA, (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) drug abuse or healthcare, we need to take a look at all of these federal agencies and ask, 'What is their relationship to tribal governments?' Whether it's at the VA (Veteran's Administration) or whether it's the USDA. Those are critical relationships, and you shouldn't have to go to the state government to get your share of those opportunities effectively.

Vincent Schilling: Looking back at everything, what is next for Heidi Heitkamp?

Heitkamp: We'll be doing some national work. One thing that will occupy a lot of my work is advancing strategies for addressing childhood trauma. I think what should motivate all of us, is how do we improve conditions for our children? Whether they live on or off Indian Country. If we could focus on the kids in this country and what improves the quality of life for children into the future, we would be so much further ahead than what we are right now. We would not be shutting down the government if we were concerned about kids. We would not be seeing teachers having to go on strike if we were concerned about kids. These are the frustrations, and children always seem to get left behind. One of the great reminders of all time is Sitting Bull's quote, "Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children." I had spoken very often, in fact in my floor speech when I left, I talked about that idea of looking seven generations into the future. And so to me, I no longer have the burden of dealing with the day-to-day. My focus will be on what improves the opportunities for generations into the future.

Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling

Email - vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com