WASHINGTON – Retired Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, the immediate past chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, made headlines earlier this year when he decided to put $1 million of his unused campaign cash to use establishing a Center for Native American Youth in the heart of the nation’s capital at the Aspen Institute think tank. The money was there to do good, but over the last eight months he’s seen some challenges—sometimes from Natives who are wary of non-Indian prescriptions for Indian communities. Throughout, he’s worked as he did in Congress, believing that if he gets the right players together, he can help make a real difference for Native kids and for Indian country as a whole.
In a new interview with Indian Country Today Media Network remarking on his journey, Dorgan shared his thoughts on what may become the greatest challenge for Native kids of all—cuts proposed by Congress members who just don’t understand the value of Indian social programs.
You’re quite a few months into heading the Center for Native American Youth—how’s it going, senator?
I’m really excited about the work that we’re doing. We’re doing youth summits around the country, roundtables. We’ve been in Arizona and Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Alaska. We’ve done a lot of work with Native American youth; and we’re working with tribes and parents. We’re doing suicide prevention training. We’re doing federal agency roundtables. What we’ve found is a lot of federal agencies have pieces of this, but really don’t ever meet with each other. So we’ve been doing roundtables in which we bring all of the various federal agencies together. We’ve just done a lot of things. I sort of feel like when we get fully into the program that we’re creating that we’re going to improve lives and save the lives of a lot of children who have been left behind.
What does it mean to ‘get fully into’ the program that you’re creating?
This has been a start-up phase. Obviously when you begin an organization from scratch, you have a start-up period, and in that start-up period, we have wanted to emphasize the youth summits and youth round-table discussions in order to evaluate the best practices. In the longer term, I think we will be an important resource for tribes and tribal governments and for parents to understand the best practices around the country that work. We will help implement those best practices. We really want to engage kids, too, in ways that say, ‘You’re not alone, and you should have hope for the future.’
Since starting the project, have you personally had the opportunity to learn anything from tribal youth members?
I really am learning. The board of advisers that I put together [which includes several Indian youth] has been helpful in teaching me. And I’ve sat in roundtable discussions with kids, hearing stories of hope and unbelievably positive aspirations that make you feel really joyful about the fact that there are some kids out there who are extraordinary. And I’ve met high school kids who believe that the sky’s the limit for them, and yet, sitting in the same meeting with the same kids, they will tell you that they have friends who have taken their own lives. These kinds of discussions describe the problem in real terms, but also give me great inspiration.
Have there been unexpected challenges in getting the center off the ground?
I think the most important issue is to let people know you exist, and also to be sure they know you are there to help them—not compete with them. We’re not interested in trying to tell anybody what they should do. We’re interested in working with tribal governments; we’re interested in working with parents. So, we’re reaching out, doing newsletters, explaining what our program is, and what we’re doing. It’s a challenge just helping people understand that we’re here, and we want to work with them. I think we’re making progress with that.
The Pew Hispanic Center recently released a review indicating that Hispanic kids are the largest single group of kids living in poverty. The review didn’t include a study of Native kids due to difficulties involved with measuring Indian country. Would you make the case that the percentage of Indian kids living in poverty might actually be highest, and should be studied more?
Absolutely. All too often they are left out of these studies. On many Indian reservations, there are no jobs; the unemployment rate is very, very high, resulting in children and families living in poverty. I think an objective evaluation would conclude that the highest percentage of children living in poverty in this country is Indian children. They generally aren’t included in many of these studies, despite the fact that they should be. Out of sight, out of mind.
Do you see your center as being able to help in that area, to get some concrete data gathered on various Indian youth issues?
We hope so, yes. That will be a second stage of what we’re doing.
What do you think about First Lady Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move in Indian Country’ program?
We’ve had discussions with the White House about their program, and we expect to be a constructive part of it. We’ve also had discussions with an organization that is sanctioned by the Olympic Committee. They’re doing a lot of youth fitness projects, and they’re specifically interested in doing these projects on reservations.
Talk about the current congressional outlook for programs that affect Native kids and families. Everyone is worried about cuts; how do you think funding for Native programs is going to fare?
Well, I’m worried about that. The mantra is, ‘cut, cut, cut everything’ as opposed to a more balance approach that says those who should be paying their fair share should be paying their fair share, so the government has some revenues. When the largest corporation in the world makes billions, and pays zero in income taxes to the federal government [laughs], it seems to be there needs to be some balance in regards to fiscal policy. I’m worried that a lot of people involved in the political side of it know the cost of everything, but the value of nothing. The question is, what is the value of these programs that invest in young lives? It goes way beyond dollars and cents. What if you decide tribal colleges are not very important anymore? Well, that would be a disaster. My point is: This needs to be something that is much more than cost. What is the value of these programs to Indian children that try to give them some hope?
Any thought on how to protect Indian programs? Are Indian advocates doing enough to be sure the value is recognized?
I think so, but if there is not adequate funding, there will be a disaster. Take mental health programs for suicide prevention—if these already underfunded programs are cut, there will be a disaster. Congress has to be very careful when it begins slicing away funding to reduce cost that they don’t injure these programs that are life and death programs for Indian children.
In the new book “Confidence Men” by Ron Suskind, a letter from you to the White House is featured in which you made clear that you wanted to be dealing directly with President Obama on economic matters, and not to his then-economic advisor, Larry Summers. It got me wondering about Indian country issues, and whether you thought from your time in the Senate that the president was personally engaged on them?
I had a chance to talk to the president about these things over many, many months, and he was very supportive of the Tribal Law and Order Act that I wrote and got passed; he was very supportive of adding the Indian Health Care Improvement Act on to the health-care bill—obviously, part of the reason was that [laughs] I told him that I wouldn’t vote for the bill unless it was included. I found the president to be very supportive of the initiatives we were trying to get done for American Indians.
On the other issue, when the president-elect was in Chicago in November and December, before he assumed the presidency when he was trying to pick his Cabinet, I was pushing him to try to get some economic advisors from outside of the culture that caused our economic problems. That’s where all that came from.
There have been a lot of news stories lately about how the president is connecting with the African-American community. And there was a story in the Washington Post recently that said he was really going to try to reach out to his core traditional supporters, including African Americans, Hispanics and others. American Indians weren’t included on the list. Should the White House be making a push to get Native voters out this coming election year?
Well, I hope they do. In addition to getting their votes, I hope very much that they will inspire their confidence by doing the right thing on initiatives, such as diabetes and suicide prevention, economic development, new jobs programs. When you talk about putting together a jobs program, as the president is talking about, you want a jobs program to jump start the economy and put people back to work. It seems to me that one of the first places you look are to the places with the highest unemployment rates, and that’s with American Indians. I hope as these initiatives go forward that there is attention paid to the plight and difficulty of getting economic progress done on Indian reservations so that jobs are created, and people can take care of themselves and their families.
Do you think the president’s advisors truly understand how bad the economy is on some reservations?
I don’t think most people understand that—even people in the administration. If you go to an Indian reservation, the unemployment rates are often staggering. But they can be missed because the numbers are often folded into larger aggregates of data.
How do you assess how well the current Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is doing on getting things done for Indian country?
Well, not much has been able to be done by any committee in the Senate because the Congress and the Senate are pretty much gridlocked. So, not much has happened at all. Chairman Akaka is a really good guy, and I know his heart is in the right place, and he would like to get a lot done—but nothing is happening in the Senate. The gears are locked. It’s like someone threw a wrench in the crank case. It’s just total gridlock, and that’s unfortunate because there are a lot of things that need to be done for some of the most vulnerable populations in the country.
How do you feel about being retired from Congress?
I really enjoy my life now. I’m traveling a lot, and I’m doing a lot of things. I’m a visiting professor at Georgetown University; I’m a senior adviser at a law firm here in D.C.; I’m on some boards of directors; working on energy policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. But the thing that I enjoy doing most is spending part of my weeks working on the Center for Native American Youth.