Whatever funding the government has provided for education, housing and other needs in Indian Country, it still has not improved the lot of reservation children, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Wednesday.
In fact, things appear to be worse today than 12 years ago when she worked with reservations as North Dakota’s attorney general, she said.
That’s why she is pushing Congress to create a Commission on Native Children to study in depth the condition Indian children live under, what the government is doing to help and why it’s not working.
She said Wednesday that the bill was approved by a wide margin by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and is on its way to a full Senate vote. Colleagues in the House are also considering their own bill, she said.
Heitkamp is optimistic the bill will get the support it needs to become law because its co-sponsors span the ideological spectrum from very conservative to very liberal.
The other main sponsor is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Asked why she is pushing so hard for the bill, Heitkamp said that anyone who has spent time in Indian Country will feel a moral imperative to speak out for reservation children.
Heitkamp’s was one of the loudest voices of outrage during the controversy over the deaths of several children at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in recent years, and it’s an issue she continues to work on.
On Wednesday, she called Indians the American ethnic group with the highest “at risk” rate, citing some statistics: While the mortality rate for American children as a whole has dropped 9 percent since 2000 it has risen 15 percent for Indian children. Indians have the highest percentage of children in foster care and the high school graduation rate for Indians is 50 percent, she said.
Asked if she feels more resources are needed on reservations or if existing resources are adequate but not efficiently used, she said it seems like a little of both. While tribal governments can spend too much on administration, she said, tribal schools say they simply don’t get enough funding to improve their facilities.
If Heitkamp’s proposed Commission on Native Children is approved, it will have three years to study the issue.