Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) says she owes a lot to Indian country, believing that the American Indian vote during her close race for a Senate seat last fall put her over the top for the win. She’s now returning the favor, telling Indian Country Today Media Network in an interview about her plans to pass legislation that would create a Commission on Native American Children.
Of all the many issues you face in the Senate, why did you decide to introduce a plan to find solutions to problems facing Native youth as your first bill?
I’m not new to this issue. When I look across the horizon and ask who needs a little more help, and where do we have some problems, it’s obviously in Indian country. They are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system; they are overrepresented in the foster care system. Thirty seven percent live in poverty, many live in substandard housing and have substandard educational opportunities. It’s not for lack of trying by the tribal governments and the schools, but right now, with sequestration, we have roofs that are not getting fixed in North Dakota. Who else is going to step up and provide that voice for these children who for so many years have struggled? The time has come. I can’t keep asking people to do something about it when I am in a position to take responsibility.
If your legislation passes and the commission is established, how will you measure its success?
I will measure its success by whether it is collaborated and not just the typical knee-jerk response. Many of my colleagues in the Senate don’t understand the additional challenges here, and I think this commission will give us the opportunity to do some broader education and get more people on board for long-term solutions. [I want to see] ideas that are culturally sensitive, but also that can produce results long term. I hope the commission will set us on a trajectory to provide a plan for improvement of the conditions for Native American kids.
Why a commission as opposed to some other form of addressing the issue?
I think a commission because, if you talk to Indian educators or Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement, everybody comes at it from their own perspectives. When I was attorney general, I did a big facilitation on juvenile justice, and basically, because of the people we invited, they were simply talking about detention centers. Well, that wasn’t the solution to kids getting in trouble on the reservation, in my opinion. So we need to bring in people from a multi-disciplinary approach who are committed to a process that will set us on a path for change. If I walk out of this office, whenever that is, and I have not done something that improves the conditions for Native American children in my state and in this country, I will not feel successful as a United State senator.
The commission ends after three years—why that timeframe?
Because we can’t waste another generation.
The cost of the commission is $2 million—is cost going to be a sticking point in the current congressional budgetary climate?
We are trying to find solutions, and I think there are going to be so many people excited about this, I think you will see so many people [in Congress] stepping up. It’s not new money, it will be a reallocation, and I hoping that will get a lot of buy in. Two million is a lot of money, but we just spent $168 million a day shutting down government. Where are our priorities?
Where will the money be reallocated from?
The Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Interior. It’s basically asking them all to pony up a small amount to fund the commission.
Will tribes receive any money?
The $2 million is just for the costs of the commission. It’s not going to act as an appropriator. It is going to show the things we can do working collaboratively in a government-to-government relationship.
Who will sit on the commission? Any tribal citizens?
It will be appointees of the president, the Senate majority Leader, the minority leader in the Senate, and the majority and minority speakers in the House. Whoever they want. We expect that tribal citizens will be invited to serve on both the commission and its advisory committee. I prefer that the appointees be from Indian country.
How is your relationship with tribes evolving?
I think most tribal leaders would say I had a fairly good relationship with them before I entered the Senate. I think I’ve always approached tribal governments as sovereign governments with sovereign people. We have to be respectful of the government-to-government relationship. And I understand treaty rights, and look at them from a lens of contractual responsibilities. I think my relationship has only gotten stronger with tribes in the last year.
Did the Indian vote help you win your race?
It would be hard to say no, wouldn’t it? It was a huge factor in my campaign.
Native children are obviously a huge priority for you, what other Indian country issues will you be taking the lead on?
One of the issues I have been involved with is looking at the IRS intrusion into sovereign tribal assistance to tribal people. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and I have the lead bill there, trying to roll back IRS excess. Indian housing is also a huge issue for me. I’m on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and intend to be a very active member of that committee. I want to see that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is not seen as the forgotten stepchild of the Department of the Interior. I want its needs to be front and center.
Lastly, you have introduced the bill to establish the commission with Sen. Lisa Murkowski—a Republican. How important is bipartisanship in Congress on Indian issues?
Especially on this issue, it’s absolutely critical. In the end, if we are going to follow up with reallocation of resources; if we’re going to respond with resources, we need to build as broad a base as possible and get as much buy in as we possibly can to implement the recommendations of the commission.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.