Youth share spotlight as House subcommittee takes up Native bills

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

Indigenous youth and their colleagues got a special look at the legislative process at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

As a large crowd of high school students from American Samoa and California filed into the committee room, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) invited them to sit on the dais, in spots normally reserved for members of Congress. The invitation was all the more appropriate because a Native youth bill was on the agenda.

"You can be Congressmen for a little while," Young, who serves as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, told the students.

The gesture was taken to heart by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota). She came to the hearing to testify in support of S.246, the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children Act.

"There could not be a more symbolic gesture," Heitkamp said, "because this bill is about the future of leadership -- with indigenous people and Native Americans and Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians all across our country and the conditions in which they are currently struggling to find a future."

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs May 18, 2016

The bill establishes an 11-member commission to study federal, state and local programs that affect Native youth. The group would make recommendations on ways to improve educational, health and other outcomes for some of the most vulnerable groups in the nation.

"We need to find those solutions but we can't find those without experts," Heitkamp said.

The Senate passed the bill nearly a year ago by unanimous consent. The hearing brought it one step closer to action in the House.

"This bill is well-thought out and hopefully we'll have the prerogative of moving the bill," said Young. He pledged to ask the House Committee on Natural Resources to advance it to the floor.

The bill is named in honor of two late Native leaders. Alyce Spotted Bear was 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. He dedicated his life to advancing Alaska Native rights and education.

The other bill on the agenda was H.R.4289. It would convey Indian Health Service properties to the Tanana Tribal Council and to the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation and enable them to expand health offerings to their respective communities in Alaska.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on S.2421, a companion measure, on April 13 and approved it on April 27. It awaits action on the Senate floor.

Similar legislation for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation was enacted by Congress last October so the bill stands a good chance of passage.

House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 4289 and S. 246 (May 18, 2016)

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