President Signs Heitkamp, Murkowski Bill to Stand up for Native Children into Law

Senators’ Bill Passed Unanimously in the U.S. House of Representatives Last Month, and Last Year in the U.S. Senate

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) today (October 14, 2016) announced that President Obama signed their bipartisan bill to improve the lives of Native American children into law.

Heitkamp and Murkowski’s bill passed unanimously in the U.S. House of Representatives last month, and last year in the U.S. Senate. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate again affirmed the bill which included minor changes made in the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources when it unanimously approved the bill in July. The vote followed Heitkamp’s testimony before the Committee in May about the urgent need to pass their bill to implement solutions that will help address the overwhelming obstacles Native children face – including experiencing levels of post-traumatic stress similar to levels faced by newly returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, dramatically increased risks of suicide, and lower high school graduation rates than any racial or ethnic demographic in the country. Heitkamp and Murkowski’s bill will work to address these and other challenges to promote better outcomes for Native youth.

Specifically, Heitkamp and Murkowski’s bill creates a Commission on Native Children to identify the complex challenges facing Native children in North Dakota, Alaska, 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.

“For every Native child whose chance to flourish has been stifled by the overwhelming odds stacked against them, today belongs to them,” said Heitkamp. “For these children, the president’s signature on a bill dedicated to fighting the myriad of challenges they face means more than tackling barriers including unsafe housing conditions, epidemic levels of suicide, and a dire lack of educational or economic opportunity. It means showing every child across Indian Country who has ever felt isolated or hopeless that they are not alone. When I first stepped foot in the U.S. Senate, I promised to work to change outcomes for Native young people, and that’s exactly what this legislation – the very first I introduced – aims to do. By creating the Commission on Native Children, we can break down the silos that prevent Native youth from receiving the critical services they need, make sure the voices of Native young people, leaders, and advocates are heard, and build resources for Native youth that are made to last. Together with Senator Murkowski, we earned the unanimous support of Congress. With the president’s signature today, we can now get to work on improving the lives of Native young people for generations to come.”

“I am so pleased to see this piece of legislation cross the finish line, creating a commission established in memory of the late Dr. Walter Soboleff, a treasured Alaska Native elder and a champion for Native youth. I can cite many examples of young Native people who are living healthy lives and doing great things for their people. Yet far too many have found themselves in a world of despair,” said Murkowski. “There is an urgent need for a broad range of stakeholders to come to the table and formulate plans to give every young Native person a fighting chance at a productive life.”

“I applaud the Congress and in particular Senator Heitkamp for the efforts that made this new law possible.” said President Obama. “Upon signing the bill my Administration will begin seeking appointments for the Commission from the Congress so we can implement this legislation as soon as possible. I look forward to seeing the Commission’s work in the years to come – work that will help ensure all our young people can reach their full potential.”

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. It has also been lauded by former Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Byron Dorgan, the National Congress of American Indians, and the National Indian Education Association, among others. 

Background:

Conditions for young people in Indian Country are tragic. For example:

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 issue a report to address a series of challenges currently facing Native children. A Native Children Subcommittee will also provide advice to the Commission. The Commission’s report will address how to achieve:

  • Better Use of Existing Resources – The Commission will identify ways to streamline current 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 will seek to improve coordination of existing programs benefitting Native children.  The federal government houses programs across numerous different agencies, yet these programs too often do not work together.
  • Measurable Outcomes – The Commission will 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 will 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 will seek to identify obstacles to public-private partnerships in Native communities.
  • Implementation of Best Practices – The Commission will identify and highlight successful models that can   be adopted in Native communities.

For a summary of the bill, click here. For quotations from the five Native American tribes in North Dakota, as well as Senator Byron Dorgan, strongly supporting the bill click here, and for quotations from national supporters, click here.

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