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
(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
"You don't often see that," Thiele remarked.
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
"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
North Dakota who served on the National
Advisory Council on Indian Education
prior to her passing
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
Join the Conversation
take action on Native youth and Indian Country bills
easily approves bills for Native youth and tribal tourism
schedules action on Native youth and tribal tourism bills
to create commission on Native youth inches closer to passage
committee schedules markup for three Indian Country bills
share spotlight as House subcommittee takes up Native bills
list for House subcommittee hearing on two Native bills
panel sets hearing for Native youth and Alaska Native bills
youth face enormous economic and health obstacles
Barrasso welcomes passage of bills to help Native children
passes bill to create commission to study Native youth
Indian Affairs Committee approves four bills at meeting
Indian Affairs Committee business meeting and hearing
(02/02) Heidi Heitkamp/Lisa
Murkowski: Standing up for Indian children
(6/17)Senate Indian Affairs
Committee passes seven bills at meeting
(5/21)Audio from Senate Indian
Affairs Committee hearing on five bills
(4/2)Byron Dorgan: Support
commission to study Native youth issues
(11/18)DOJ task force to make recommendations on Native
hearings on violence against Native children
(11/14) Bill creates national
commission to study Native youth issues