Heitkamp’s Commission on Native Children Begins Its Work to Address Challenges

Heitkamp Speaking on Senate Floor about her First Bill which will Stand up for Native Children
Heitkamp Speaking on Senate Floor about her First Bill which will Stand up for Native Children

On October, 30, 2013, Senator Heidi Heitkamp introduced her first bill since joining the U.S. Senate, a comprehensive plan to find solutions to the complex c...

ICT editorial team

Commission Holds First Meeting to Address Challenges Native Children Face, such as Poverty, Abuse, Suicide, Education

News Release

Senator Heidi Heitkamp's Office

Heitkamp’s Commission on Native Children Begins Its Work to Address Challenges Facing Native Youth

Commission Gets to Work & Holds First Meeting to Address Challenges Native Children Face, such as Poverty, Abuse, Suicide, Educational Challenges

Since Introducing the Bill to Create the Commission in 2013, Her First Bill as a U.S. Senator, Heitkamp has Pushed for its Passage, Funding & Prompt Appointment of Commission Members

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp today announced that the Commission on Native Children, which was created by her bipartisan bill that became law in October 2016, started its work and held its first meeting today.

Since introducing her bill to create the Commission in 2013, her first bill as a U.S. senator, Heitkamp successfully pushed for its passage which happened in 2016, fought to get the Commission funded, and pushed for the prompt appointment of Commission members after it became law. Now that every position on the 11-member Commission has been filled, the Commission is studying strategies to address the major economic, social, justice, health, and educational disparities experienced by Native American children— and offer sustainable solutions to significantly improve outcomes.

“The upsetting circumstances facing Native children— including generational poverty, adolescent depression, high rates of abuse, and a lack of adequate educational opportunities— have been largely ignored by the general public and improperly addressed by the federal government. These conditions are simply unacceptable, and our nation needs to honor its sacred obligation to our tribes and truly improve the outcomes of Native youth,” said Heitkamp.

“Since first arriving in the U.S. Senate, I’ve fought to create, fully fund, and fully staff this Commission. With today’s first meeting, the Commission can finally begin examining solutions designed to expand the range of opportunities for children in Indian Country. We can’t continue to do what we’ve always done and expect a different result. Now is the time to alter our approach as we work to improve graduation rates, intervene in abusive situations, build better career paths, and treat the effects of childhood trauma. With the Commission’s findings, we can build hope in our tribal communities and work to dramatically change the futures of these kids— our kids— so every child has the opportunity to succeed.”

The Commission is comprised of individuals specializing in juvenile justice, social service programs, Indian education, and mental and physical health, and includes several members from North Dakota.

“The constant threat of a traumatic experience is a national reality for too many kids on too many reservations. And for years, the federal government has neglected to fully understand and treat the immense amount of trauma inflicted on generations of Native families,” said Dr. Tami DeCoteau, Member of the Commission on Native Children, enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, & Arikara Nation, and Bismarck-based clinical psychologist specializing in trauma-informed care.

“This Commission is a chance to turn an important page in that long and tense history and to raise awareness about the issues impacting children’s physical and mental health that have been overlooked for too long. Senator Heitkamp has consistently been a champion for Native youth, and that shows through her efforts to create the Commission and to make sure it can carry out its task of building much-needed opportunities for under-served children. I look forward to updating her on our Commission’s progress as we support the education, health, and economic needs of young people across Indian Country.”

In October 2013, Heitkamp spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate to discuss her first bill and the complex challenges facing Native American children in North Dakota, the Northern Plains, and across Indian Country.

Tribal governments face numerous obstacles in responding to the needs of Native children. Existing programmatic rules and the volume of resources required to access grant opportunities stymie efforts of tribes to tackle these issues. At the same time, federal agencies lack clear guidance about the direction that should be taken to best address the needs of Native children to fulfill our trust responsibility to tribal nations.

To help reverse these impacts, the Commission on Native Children will conduct a comprehensive study on the programs, grants, and supports available for Native children, both at government agencies and on the ground in Native communities, with the goal of developing a sustainable system that delivers wrap-around services to Native children. Then, the 11-member Commission will have three years from its full appointment and funding to issue a report to address a series of challenges currently facing Native children.

The Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children, named for the former Chairwoman of Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation in North Dakota, and Alaska Native Elder and statesman, respectively, has been widely praised by a cross-section of tribal leaders and organizations from North Dakota, Alaska, and around the country. For statements of support from the five North Dakota tribes, as well as former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, click here, and for statements from national supporters, click here.


Youth in Indian Country face unique hardships and challenges for their age group. For example:

· More than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native children live in poverty.

· Suicide rates for Native children ages 15-24 years old are 2.5 times the national average and is the second-leading cause of death in that age group.

· While the overall rate of child mortality in the U.S. has decreased since 2000, the rate for Native children has increased 15 percent.

· At 67 percent, American Indian and Alaska Native students had the lowest four year high school graduation rate of any racial or ethnic group in the 2011-2012 school year.

· 60 percent of American Indian schools do not have adequate high-speed internet or digital technology to meet the requirements of college and career ready standards.

Heitkamp has long worked to protect Native children and communities from violence, including working to protect women and girls from abduction and human trafficking. In October 2017, Heitkamp introduced Savanna’s Act, legislation to combat the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at ten times the national average, and 84 percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime.

And in April 2018, Heitkamp and U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) announced that their bipartisan bill to expand AMBER Alerts in Indian Country was signed into law. Heitkamp introduced the bill to expand the child abduction warnings in Indian Country, because such alerts are critical for law enforcement efforts to quickly disseminate information to the public about abducted children to generate leads as quickly as possible. Currently, this level of alert is not available in many parts of Indian Country— or is limited to tribal lands.


Press Pool