Last Wednesday, United States Senators Heidi Senator Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced legislation to create a Commission on Native American Children. Both are members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Hopefully Congress will endorse this legislation and the Commission on Native American Children can become a reality. Given the living conditions many Native youth endure, the proposed Commission is needed and long overdue.
Here are some tragic statistics faced by Native children:
- 37 percent of Native children live in poverty.
- Suicide rates are 2.5 times the national average
for children 15-24 years old.
- High school graduation rate for Native students is
around 50 percent, compared to more than
75 percent of white students.
- While the overall rate of child mortality is the United
States has decreased since 2000, the
rate for Native children has increased 15 percent.
If approved by Congress, the bipartisan legislation will allow the Commission on Native American Children to examine these harsh realities many Native children face growing up throughout this country.
The Commission’s report would 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.
The proposed bill is Senate Heitkamp’s first piece of legislation she introduced since entering the U.S. Senate this past January.
I talked to Senator Heitkamp last Wednesday afternoon by telephone.
“Instead of simply talking about the problems, I realized I am in a position as a senator to make a difference,” Senator Heitkamp told me. Her passion to examine the issues facing Native youth and the development of plausible solutions are real.
“For me what this about is the beginning. Let’s quit talking about housing, foster care, substance abuse has separate issues. Let’s go back to the beginning and figure out how to give Native American children quality lives—both on and off the reservation,” she continued.
The proposed legislation and Senator Heitkamp’s enthusiasm reminded me of the quote by Sitting Bull:
“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”
The proposed Commission allows for the bringing of great minds together to make a better life for American Indian and Alaska Native children.
A Commission on Native American Children may not cure all that is wrong for Native children throughout Indian country, but its creation will be able to light the struggles Native youth face in modern times.
Both Senators Heitkamp and Murkowski should be applauded for their efforts.
“Native Youth: Our Future”
Photo: Linda Sacks