Today’s visit by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to Standing Rock Indian Reservation was monumental in helping turn the nation’s attention to Indian country, U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp said.
Heitkamp joined the President on the reservation and helped showcase the tribe’s history and culture, while also discussing ways the federal government can better work with tribal nations to improve conditions, particularly for Native American children. The trip marked the first time a sitting U.S. President has visited Indian country since 1999.
“The President’s trip to North Dakota today was a major step forward in our efforts to elevate the issues facing our Native American citizens to a national level,” said Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “The President and I have had our fair share of disagreements, but I will never question his Administration’s commitment to Indian country. Because of his visit, Americans across the country were able to learn more about the culture and patriotism of Native Americans. They also learned about the deplorable statistics – from health care to crime – that exist in many tribal communities. It is my hope that we as a country will take this opportunity to come together and work on long-term solutions for Indian country.”
While rarely discussed, some conditions in Indian country are staggering, including: 37 percent of Native children live in poverty; suicide rates are 2.5 times the national average for ages 15-34; high school graduation rate for Native students is around 50 percent, compared to 75 percent for white students; and while the rate of child mortality in the U.S. has decreased since 2000, the rate for Native children has increased 15 percent.
President Obama and Heitkamp, along with Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, participated in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s powerful Flag Day Wacipi (Powwow). The ceremony, which Heitkamp first attended in 1984, honors tribal members who have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving with the U.S. military. Per capita, American Indians have the highest record of military service among other ethnic groups in the U.S.
Heitkamp is a strong advocate for all of our veterans, including Native Americans veterans who often face challenges in receiving the benefits they earned. Tomorrow Heitkamp will host a Native American Veterans Summit in Bismarck to connect Native American veterans with resources to help them better access their benefits. The Summit will also give Native American veterans an opportunity to have their voices heard about issues they have faced in receiving care. Both Jewell and Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn will attend Heitkamp’s Summit.
Since her time as North Dakota’s Attorney General in the 1990s, Heitkamp has been a strong and vocal advocate for North Dakota’s tribes. Heitkamp has continued these efforts in the Senate. In fact, the first bill she introduced as a Senator would create a Commission on Native Children to conduct an intensive study into issues facing Native children – such as high rates of poverty, staggering unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and few economic opportunities – and make recommendations on how to make sure Native children are better taken care of and given the opportunities to thrive. Last month, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – the final step before it goes to the Senate for a vote. The bill has 27 bipartisan cosponsors, and the strong support of all five North Dakota tribes and many national Native American organizations.