Bill aims to protect Native American children

U.S. senators from North Dakota and Alaska introduced a bill Wednesday that would establish a commission to study the challenges facing Native American children and propose ways of improving their welfare.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said more needs to be done to offer a better future for the children of Native Americans, who face high rates of poverty, unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime and substance abuse, as well as a lack of opportunity.

“We just cannot live in a society where we allow these statistics to just go without a name and go without a solution,” Heitkamp said during a teleconference Wednesday.

Heitkamp, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, introduced the bill with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. It would be funded with up to $2 million to establish an 11-member commission, which would deliver its recommendations within three years and then disband, leaving it up to federal, state and tribal leaders to follow through on the proposals.

Researchers have studied many of the issues facing Native American children individually, but Heitkamp said a comprehensive approach is needed to put them on the path to success.

The study would also examine the effects of extreme poverty on reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota.

“Those issues of poverty add to the challenges,” Heitkamp said.

The commission would be named after Alyce Spotted Bear, the former chairwoman of North Dakota’s Mandan, Hidatsa &Arikara Nation, and Walter Soboleff, an Alaska Native elder and statesman.

The bill has been endorsed by North Dakota tribal leaders.

Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, called the commission a crucial step toward making sure Native American children get the education, health care, and support they deserve. He said it’s appropriate that the bill was named after Spotted Bear, who was dedicated to the cultural standard of caring for children.

“In our culture, children are sacred,” Hall said in a statement. “They are the future leaders of tribes, and the future parents and grandparents who will help carry on our traditions.”

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