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Bill to Stand Up for Native American Children is Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives

June 12, 2015
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp today announced that her bipartisan bill to improve the lives of Native children was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) helped introduce the bill in the Senate, where it unanimously passed less than two weeks ago.

Democratic Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota and Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma introduced the Senators’ bill to create a Commission on Native children today in the U.S. House of Representatives. Congressman Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, introduced the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives last Congress as well. Joining Cole and McCollum in introducing the bill are Republican Congressmen Jeff Denham of California and Democratic Congressman Mark Takai of Hawaii. In the opening days of the new Congress, Heitkamp and Murkowski reintroduced their bill. Two weeks later, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs unanimously approved their bill. It’s the first bill Heitkamp introduced in the Senate.

The Senators’ bill would create a Commission on Native Children to identify the complex challenges facing Native children in North Dakota and across the United States by conducting an intensive study on issues including high rates of poverty, staggering unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and dire economic opportunities. The Commission would then provide recommendations to better protect Native children and make sure they have the economic and educational tools to thrive. 

“For decades, the federal government has failed to stand up for the needs of Native youth, but working together across the aisle and in both the Senate and House, we’re working to change that,” said Heitkamp. “We took a giant leap last week when the Senate passed my bill – and the message was clear:  Now is the time to reverse the status quo and address the gaping challenges Native youth face. But the story is only half-written. Today, leaders from both sides of the aisle in the House of Representatives united to introduce my bill to create a Commission on Native Children. We must build on this momentum by moving this bill forward to make sure our federal government works with tribes, so we can give every American child the fighting chance at success that they deserve.”

“Protecting the future for our native youth is an effort that must start today as we build strong, confident young men and women – even as they face a culture of despair fed by poverty, crime, unemployment, substance abuse, and household violence,” said Murkowski. “This complicated problem deserves a multi-pronged, holistic response that brings to bear all the agencies’ knowledge and expertise. I am confident that the House of Representatives – with lawmakers from urban and rural states – will come together and see the merit in this valuable commission that will examine all the factors and triggers involved, to make informed policy suggestions and turn this cycle around.”

“This Commission is an opportunity for the federal government to strengthen our role as trustees of the education, social service, juvenile justice, and health care systems that serve Native children,” said McCollum. “Native American youth from across the nation will bring their voices to bear as advisors to the Commission on the challenges they face and the supports they need. The disparities these young people face demand our focused attention and our best solutions to support the future of tribal nations and our nation as a whole.”

“As a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, I was raised to appreciate, remember and embrace my Native American heritage,” said Cole. “Throughout my life, I have carried that with me and sought to provide a voice for tribes as a lawmaker in the House. Along with Rep. Betty McCollum, I am pleased to help introduce a vital piece of legislation that lends a voice and means a great deal to future generations of Native Americans. Through formation of a commission that studies the needs of Native children and federal benefits currently received or lacking, the House companion to Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s bill rightly seeks to improve the livelihood of Native American children and helps the federal government keep its trust responsibility.”


Conditions for young people in Indian Country are tragic and must be addressed. For example:

More than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native children live in poverty;

Suicide rates for Native children ages 15-24 years old are 2.5 times the national average and is the second-leading cause of death in that age group;

High school graduation rate for students at schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education is 53 percent, compared to over 80 percent for white students;

While the overall rate of child mortality in the U.S. has decreased since 2000, the rate for Native children has increased 15 percent; and

60 percent of American Indian schools do not have adequate high-speed Internet or digital technology to meet the requirements of college and career ready standards.

To help reverse these impacts, the Commission on Native Children would conduct a comprehensive study of the programs, grants, and resources available for Native children, both under government agencies and locally in Native communities, with the goal of developing a sustainable system for providing wrap-around services. An 11-member Commission would then issue a report highlighting challenges and best practices for better serving Native children. A Native Children Subcommittee would also provide advice to the Commission. The Commission’s report would address how to achieve:

Better Use of Existing Resources – The Commission would identify ways to streamline current federal, state, and local programs to be more effective and give tribes greater flexibility to devise programs for their communities in the spirit of self-determination and allow government agencies to redirect resources to the areas of most need.

Increased Coordination – The Commission would seek to improve coordination of existing programs benefitting Native children.  The federal government houses programs across numerous and varying agencies, yet these programs too often do not coordinate. 

Measurable Outcomes – The Commission would recommend measures to determine the wellbeing of Native children, and use these measurements to propose short-term, mid-term, and long-term national policy goals.

Stronger Data – The Commission would seek to develop better data collection methods.  Too often Native children are left out of the conversation because existing data collection, reporting, and analysis practices exclude them.

Stronger Private Sector Partnerships – The Commission would seek to identify obstacles to public-private partnerships in Native communities.

Implementation of Best Practices – The Commission would identify and highlight successful models that can   be adopted in Native communities.

Link to original release sent by Senator Heitkamp


Abbie McDonough/Julia Krieger (202) 224-8898 (Heitkamp)
Matthew Felling (202) 224-9301 (Murkowski)
Sam McCullough (202) 226-3704 (McCollum)
Sarah Corley (202) 225-6165 (Cole)