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Heitkamp's first Senate bill proposes Commission on Native Children

Democratic candidate for the North Dakota's U.S. Senate seat, Heidi Heitkamp, debates Republican candidate Rep. Rick Berg R-ND, during in Bismarck, N.D., on Thursday Oct. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Will Kincaid)

BISMARCK - The first bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp since taking office in January would create a commission to study poverty, child abuse, drug abuse and other issues facing Native American children and recommend ways to improve services to them.

Heitkamp, D-N.D., a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, introduced the bipartisan bill Wednesday with fellow committee member Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

The 11-member Commission on Native Children would conduct a three-year study on the programs, grants and supports available for children both through government agencies and on reservations.

At the end of the three years, the commission would issue a report to Congress recommending ways to better use government resources and coordinate programs benefiting Native American children and to measure their well-being. It also would develop better data collection methods, identify obstacles to public-private partnerships in American Indian communities and identify and highlight successful models that can be implemented in other communities, according to a bill summary from Heitkamp's office.

Heitkamp said separate studies have looked at problems plaguing Indian country, including the suicide rate, which is at least 3.5 times higher among Native American teens than the national average, according to the Center for Native Youth founded by former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

"What we're trying to do here is not just look at each discreet statistic and come up with the reaction to that, but it's to put our arms around the entire problem," she said in a conference call with reporters.

Heitkamp said her interest in Native American issues dates back to her time as North Dakota's attorney general in the 1990s, when she spent time on reservations talking to children about their challenges and witnessed "tragically appalling" statistics.

The situation "has only gotten worse," she said, referring to rising substance abuse on reservations and recent concerns about a lack of adequate child protection services on North Dakota's Spirit Lake Reservation, "where we know that we failed to provide a safety net for Native American children," she said.

"We just cannot live in a society where we allow these statistics to just go without a name and go without a solution," she said.

Native Americans are the largest minority population in North Dakota, with 5.5 percent of state residents identifying themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native in the 2010 census, compared with 1.2 percent nationally.

The study would cost up to $2 million, paid for with unspent funds from the Department of Justice, Department of the Interior and Department of Health and Human Services. Commission members would be appointed by a bipartisan group including the president, the Senate majority and minority leaders, and the House speaker and minority leader.

Leaders of all five of North Dakota's American Indian tribes have endorsed the bill, as have the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association, according to Heitkamp's office.

Richard McCloud, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, said the study is "long overdue" and that the country for too long has overlooked the needs of Native American children.

Housing and food assistance are among the biggest needs on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in north-central North Dakota, McCloud said. For some students, their federally subsidized school lunch is the only meal they receive all day, he said.

"We'll fight along with Sen. Heitkamp to assist and help this bill get passed," he said.

Heitkamp said she anticipates a lot of lawmakers will want to co-sponsor the bill.

The bill is the first introduced by Heitkamp since she was sworn in Jan. 3 as the first female U.S. senator from North Dakota, having defeated U.S. Rep. Rick Berg in the November election.

"Congratulations to Sen. Heitkamp on introducing her first bill today after nearly a year in office, but the people of North Dakota are still waiting for her to take real action toward passing a budget, reducing out-of-control government spending and getting America back to work," North Dakota Republican Party Executive Director Jason Flohrs said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who was sworn in Jan. 5, 2011, introduced his first bill in the Senate on May 26 of that year, the FEMA Common Sense and Cost Effectiveness Act of 2011. The bill was passed in part and attached to the five-year reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program. Hoeven spokesman Don Canton said work continues to pass the remainder of the bill, which would give state and local governments the flexibility they need to respond to and prepare for flooding.

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at