Bill introduced in House to create Commission on Native Children

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma). Photo from Flickr

A bill to create the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children was introduced in the House today.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a member of the Chickasaw Nation, and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Native American Caucus, are sponsoring the bill. It creates a commission that will study ways to improve the lives of American Indian and Alaska Native youth at the tribal, local, state and federal levels.

“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."

“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,” added 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."

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

The move comes just a week after the Senate passed S.246, an identical version of the bill introduced by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The pair have been pushing to create the commission since the last session of Congress.

“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.

"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,” added Murkowski.

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On Wednesday, Heitkamp and Murkowski attended a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on victim services in Indian Country. Both expressed outrage after learning about high rates of sexually transmitted diseases among Native youth in Montana and high rates of child sexual abuse in Alaska.

"In what world aren't we horrified?" Heitkamp asked. "I'm horrified by all of this."

The bill 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. She was a well-regarded educator.

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

"Protecting Native children and providing safe and supportive communities has been a top priority identified by tribal leaders to this committee," the Senate report for the bill stated. "Yet, the lack of sufficient coordinated research on the full scope of the causes, existing issues and challenges inhibits the federal and tribal governments from developing appropriate, tailored programs to deliver the most efficient and targeted serv- ices to these children."

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