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President Obama signs Native youth commission bill into law






President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama with youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on June 13, 2014. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

President Barack Obama is moving quickly to establish the first-ever Native youth commission to help solidify a key part of his legacy.

Obama signed S.246, the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children Act, into law on Friday and issued a statement outlining his intent to implement the bill "as soon as possible." The new panel will study ways to improve health, education and other outcomes for American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian youth.

"Over the past 8 years, my administration has been committed to working closely with tribes to strengthen our nation-to-nation relationships and to forge a brighter future for all our children," Obama said in the signing statement. "During my own visits to Indian Country, I have been inspired by the talent and enthusiasm of young people who want nothing more than to make a positive difference in their communities."

The signing statement was notable in and of itself. Obama has only ever issued one for an Indian Country bill and that was back in December 2010.

But the president is clearly interested in ensuring the new commission -- which will consist of 11 members, three to be appointed by the executive branch and eight by Congress -- gets off the ground, ideally before he leaves in January.

"I look forward to seeing the commission's work in the years to come -- work that will help ensure all our young people can reach their full potential," Obama said.

More so than any other president, Obama has maintained a strong connection with Native youth. A meeting with young members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on their reservation in North Dakota in June 2014 was crucial in getting his administration to pay more attention to the issues facing the most vulnerable group in America.

"They were just regular kids," former White House staffer Raina Thiele (Dena’ina Athabascan and Yup’ik) said of that discussion, which included First Lady Michelle Obama.

But their words were "so honest and were so impactful, that when the President and the First Lady walked out of that meeting, they were literally in tears," Thiele said at a meeting of the Native American Council at the Democratic National Convention in July.

"You don't often see that," Thiele remarked.


Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), third from right, with youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in June 2014. Photo from Twitter

Among those who were at Standing Rock during that historic 2014 visit -- Obama's first to Indian Country as president -- was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota). She introduced S.246 in the 114th Congress just a few months later.

"By creating the Commission on Native Children, we can break down the silos that prevent Native youth from receiving the critical services they need, make sure the voices of Native young people, leaders, and advocates are heard, and build resources for Native youth that are made to last," Heitkamp said in a press release on Friday.

"There is an urgent need for a broad range of stakeholders to come to the table and formulate plans to give every young Native person a fighting chance at a productive life," added Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a co-sponsor of the bill.

Despite the laudable goals of the commission, it does not come with any funding. After Heitkamp shepherded it through the Senate, where it passed in June 2010, it was stripped of $2 million by the House before its passage in that chamber on September 12.

The updated version was sent back to the Senate, where it once again passed on September 29. The bill was formally presented to Obama on October 3.

Eleven days later, the signing statement outlined a unique issue in the new law. Although the commission was meant to be located within the Office of Tribal Justice at the Department of Justice, Obama said it will instead be treated as "an independent entity, separate from the executive branch."

"While I welcome the creation of this Commission, it cannot be located in the executive branch consistent with the separation of powers because it includes legislative branch appointees," Obama wrote in the statement.

The new commission is named in honor of Alyce Spotted Bear, a former chairwoman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation in North Dakota who served on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education prior to her passing in 2013.

Walter Sobeloff was a revered Tlingit elder who died in 2011 at the age of 102. Murkowski has called him a "legend" because he dedicated his life to advancing Alaska Native rights and education.

The new law calls on the commission, once it has been established, to issue a report on its findings within three years. A similar undertaking occurred with the Indian Law and Order Commission, which was established by the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010.

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