Farmington — A bill introduced this week in the Senate calls for federal officials to form a commission to examine the social issues affecting Native American youth.
On Wednesday, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., presented Senate Bill No. 1622 to create a national commission to study and address the high rates of poverty, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse and high school drop outs that plague Native youth, along with making recommendations to solve those problems.
Statistics in the bill include that 37 percent of Native children live in poverty, suicide rates among Native Americans between the ages of 15 to 24 are 2.5 times higher than the national average and high school graduation rates for Natives stand at about 50 percent.
"There is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Native communities than Native children, and the United States has a direct interest, as trustee, in protecting Native children," according to the bill.
The 11-member commission would be named the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children, and it would be housed in the Office of Tribal Justice under the Department of Justice.
The commission would be tasked with conducting a comprehensive study of federal, state, local and tribal programs that serve Native children.
A commission with this type of focus is long overdue, said Angelita Joe, field office manager for the National Indian Youth Council in Farmington.
"All the issues mentioned are happening within our Native communities and are rising each year," Joe said. "These issues do need to be addressed at a young age so they will not be carried into the adult years."
Wetona Becenti, program supervisor for the Office of Youth Development's Shiprock Agency, hopes the commission will have influential Native Americans and others who are dedicated to working with Indian Country.
"Many of the issues that the bill highlights do exist within many native tribes," Becenti said. "Although we as native people have experienced many of these disparities for many years, it is interesting as to why it has taken this long for a bill like this to be established."
Heitkamp is no stranger to confronting issues that affect Native Americans, which she also did while serving as North Dakota's attorney general.
In comments made Wednesday in the Senate and posted online, she said it was time for the federal government to face these challenges and find solutions.
"I know a lot of people have suspicions about things called 'commissions,' but I believe for the first time we will be pulling together the data regarding what is exactly the status of Native children all across the United States," Heitkamp said.
By pulling together that data, the commission can study and understand those issues and change the outcome.
"Because if we keep doing what we are doing right now, we will fail the next generation of Native children," she said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is cosponsoring the bill and said the United States has a federal trust responsibility to address those issues.
"Truth be told, these statistics are not what we want to write home about," Murkowski said. "In fact, in many, many cases these statistics are shameful."
The bill has been referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs.Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.