Former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan today announced the membership of the Board of Advisors for the Center for Native American Youth, the new policy program dedicated to combating the challenges faced by American Indian youth, including youth suicide and substance abuse prevention, education and more.
Dorgan, former chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs from 2007-2011, founded the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. He donated $1 million of excess campaign funds to create the organization in January of this year.
The newly appointed Board features prominent American Indian leaders, entrepreneurs, journalists and advocates as well as other Americans who have worked on Indian issues over the years. Senator Dorgan will serve as Chairman of the Board of Advisors, which also includes Lt. Governor Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians; Jacoby Ellsbury, center fielder for the Boston Red Sox; Dave Anderson, founder of Famous Dave’s restaurant chain; Hattie Kauffman, national correspondent for CBS’ The Early Show; Tom Brokaw, former NBC Nightly News anchor; Phil Jackson, NBA head coach; Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senator; Gordon Smith, former U.S. Senator; as well as three Native American youth members from tribal communities in North Dakota, Alaska and New Mexico. View the full list in the Aspen Institute’s press release.
“I created the Center for Native American Youth because I believe our country has a responsibility to keep the promises we made to the First Americans,” Dorgan said in a statement. “Our focus will be with Native American children, many of whom are facing daunting challenges.”
Dorgan added that Native American youth are the most at-risk population in the United States, noting that the rates of teen suicide on Indian reservations nearly quadruple the national average.
The Center for Native American Youth will work on issues of teen suicide prevention, substance abuse, education and more. The Center will work with Native American youth and parents, and also aspires to develop meaningful partnerships with tribal governments and other organizations on issues affecting Native children.
The Aspen Institute mission is twofold: to foster values-based leadership, encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society, and to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues. The Aspen Institute does this primarily in four ways: seminars, young-leader fellowships around the globe, policy programs, and public conferences and events. The Institute is based in Washington, D.C.; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also has an international network of partners.
“It’s the Center for Native American Youth, but to me it’s really Indian children at risk or teen suicide prevention, substance abuse, gangs–all those issues that are confronted routinely on Indian reservations. I just want to create a place where everybody can understand somebody cares, and somebody is trying to do something about it,” said Sen. Dorgan in a video interview with the Aspen Institute.
The heart of the program is suicide prevention. “My goal here is to save lives,” Sen. Dorgan said. “Now I don’t know if we’ll ever know the lives we saved. But I’m convinced that if we reach out and create youth summits and do education and best practices and work with the tribal governments and others, I’m convinced we can have an impact on the lives of Native American children in this country.”
In the video interview, Sen. Dorgan referenced the tragic death of Avis Littlewind, who committed suicide on March 30, 2004, in her home on the Crow Reservation in Fort Totten, North Dakota, reported the Independent Record. “Avis Littlewind was 14 years old, and Avis Littlewind was lying in bed for 90 days in the fetile position,” Sen. Dorgan said. “Nobody missed her. The school didn’t miss her. She came from a dysfunctional family, and, eventually, she got out of bed and she took her own life.
“I went to that Indian reservation to ask, ‘What happened? How does a young girl like Avis Littlewind fall through the cracks here, and nobody notices? Where is the mental health treatment for someone in difficulty?'”
Sen. Dorgan hopes the Center for Native American Youth can stop these atrocities from occurring. He recognizes that tribal leaders work daily to address such issues with meager resources. “I’ve worked with them; I deeply admire the work they’re doing. But the fact is they’re hamstrung,” Sen. Dorgan said in the video interview. “They don’t have the resources, they’ve been the recipients of broken promises, and they work everyday to try to address these problems, and it’s very hard for them.”