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Byron Dorgan, Published November 18 2013

Letter: Native American children have champion in Senate

I’m proud of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., for writing legislation that will establish a National Commission on Native Children.

Our federal government has a trust responsibility to provide for the education, health and safety of Native American children, yet it continues to underfund those very programs and services. Indian children are too often left behind in federal and state policies, as well as private funding opportunities. The stand Sen. Heitkamp is taking against the broken promises and her work to identify ways to improve the lives of Native American children is going to make a difference.

When I chaired the Indian Affairs Committee while in the Senate, I knew that Indian children were the most at-risk population in America, and we worked to change that. When I retired from the Senate, I created the Center for Native American Youth to shine a light on the difficulties they face and to find solutions to the challenges of teen suicide, inadequate health care and education opportunities, and more. We’re making progress by partnering with tribal leaders, community members, and parents who work valiantly each day to address the challenges faced by their children. But there is much more to do. And that’s why the legislation Sen. Heitkamp has written is so important.

The Heitkamp proposal of a commission is a welcome step toward ensuring that Indian children are no longer invisible to federal policymakers. It is also an important step toward working together – public and private sector – to examine the disparities Native American children face and develop concrete action steps and solutions to improve the lives of our youngest First Americans. The commission proposal would include presidential and congressional appointees, experts on native child issues, and tribal leadership. It will have an opportunity to push hard toward more funding and more effective solutions that will invest in the lives of Indian children.

The goal of the commission is to develop a report that identifies and provides actionable next steps for how federal, state and tribal governments can more effectively use resources, increase coordination and build partnerships to focus on the well-being of Native American children. We need better data and better tools to know what works and how to most effectively create programs that will positively affect the lives of children in Indian Country. As a former policymaker, it is clear to me that this proposed commission will push us forward in these areas.

Sen. Heitkamp is a longtime champion for our Native Americans, and I am proud of her for taking a leadership role in making American Indian children a top priority.


Former Sen. Dorgan, D-N.D., was chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee in the U.S. Senate.