Sen. Heitkamp Reflects on Historic Presidential Visit to North Dakota

Vincent Schilling, Indian Country Today


In the wake of the historic Presidential visit to Indian country by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Senator Heidi Heitkamp [D-ND], talked to ICTMN about being the receiving Senator of the day.

Soon after the President and First Lady arrived in North Dakota, Heitkamp joined them on Marine One and made their way to the Standing Rock Sioux celebration in Cannonball where the President and First Lady met with tribal leaders, talked with Native youth and enjoyed a powwow celebration.

Heitkamp also had an opportunity to speak at length with the Obama’s to share her concerns about Indian country and her recent initiatives to include her cosponsored legislation to support Native American language immersion programs and her first Native American Veterans Summit to connect Native vets with resources, support, and benefits.

For more information about Senator Heitkamp, visit

Last week [week of June 13] was quite a week for Indian country.

The country got some insight into a powwow announcer.

You were the receiving Senator of the President and First Lady. How did that feel?

We shared such a concern for all of these issues. I was proud to show him the great traditions that we have down in Standing Rock. I was proud to be part of the day but this really was about a day for the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

Yes, I was there and I was given a chance to participate, but what I really appreciated was how respectful they were of tribal sovereignty.

What types of things did you talk about with the President and First Lady – including the issues of course, but anything else?

I spent a lot of time visiting with the President about Native American housing, I think that is one of the critical issues and concerns that we have regarding how we are going to revitalize and improve conditions for Native American people.

I also spoke about the critical need to not only build more housing, but we need to destroy the housing that I think is dangerous to kids, such as houses with black mold. We need to make sure those homes are replaced.

We also spent a lot of time talking about education and the need for nutrition, including some of the work that the First Lady is doing in keeping our kids healthy.

We also gossiped a little bit about the Senate. (laughs)

Can you tell me any gossip? (Laugh in return)

No, I am not telling you that.

Was this the first time you’ve met them both at the same time?

This was the first time they were in North Dakota together, but it was also the first time I have been with the both of them.

It was an impressive day. What was the Presidents take?

If you take a look at where the President’s priorities are as it relates to Native American people, I think you will see a very sincere appreciation for the culture but also to the challenges in understanding the role that the federal government plays in making things better for Indian country.

Considering you are Senator of North Dakota, there is a lot to share about Indian country.

We have five tribes that are my constituents in North Dakota. I have a unique relationship with them. I was just talking about how I used to challenge federal officials to do something to improve the conditions for Native Americans and their families. Now I am in the position where I do not get to ask the questions, I am the one who must answer the questions. Now it is my job.

I come from a long tradition of North Dakota senators who have been champions. Quentin Burdick was beloved in Indian country and North Dakota. His dad Usher Burdick was a congressman who also worked on these issues for years. Sen. Byron Dorgan really picked up the mantle. If you think about what Dorgan is doing now he just does not give up. He is still trying to figure out what we can do and he has been a great help for me.

He was a witness for me on the child commission bill He is still a full partner. You can’t spend time in Indian country and not be motivated to take up the mantle of working with sovereign nations to improve conditions.

You are also an advocate for sustaining Native American languages.

[W]e [recently] had a great hearing on Native languages. A lot of people wonder what the big deal about a Native American language is. But in terms of recovery of the community, so much of Native culture is in their language – There are so many different words for different things which are things we can just take for granted.

The Senate committee on Indian affairs, Maria [Cantwell (D-Wash.)] was a great chair and I think now Sen. Jon tester [(D-Mont.)] will be a great chair, and we’re doing some very important collaboration for Indian country and we are also holding federal officials accountable for the decisions they are making.

In your discussions with the First Lady and the President, I am certain you discussed a lot of issues but did you discuss any possible workable solutions?

I will be talking to Jodi Gillette in the next couple of days as a follow-up to the President’s visit. But I will tell you, as persuasive as I like to believe I might have been in coming up with solutions, I do not think I could match the conversation that the President and First Lady had with six Native American youth who told their stories.

The things that the president is going to remember Is not me yacking on about housing, I think their take away will be those six amazing youth leaders who have had life challenges that most people could only imagine. They experience things that children their age should not have to have been confronted with – whether it be experiences involving suicide, parental addiction or whatever else there was.

I think if you ask the White House what they will remember other than the beauty of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and the beauty of the people and ceremony – I think they will say they will remember those conversations with the six Native youths.

Considering such a historic day, what was your take on the entire experience?

I will tell you, there are two visual things that I will always have other than the panoramic beauty of what went on there at the Standing Rock powwow.

What I will really remember is a young Native American girl sitting next to Nicole Archambault the chairman’s wife who was literally shaking with excitement. When the president turned and looked at her, she burst into tears.

It was a reminder to me, as the President and First Lady were spending that time there, they were demonstrating: ‘You children are valued and you are important, that is why we’re here.’ You could see that pride in the people that participated.

The second thing I will remember is that I have never seen the President happier or more relaxed. I think those are my two emotional takeaways.

As tough as the conversations with those kids might have been, I think it was a joyful experience because he was seeing the best of their culture. They were not phoning it in, they were not checking a box – they were engaged and committed.

What do you hope will come out of all of this?

I hope what comes out of this will be the continuing of his efforts and improving education. Sally Jewell was there looking at the Cannonball school and I am hoping we can get a new school built. I think this was a stressful day for the President because he was speaking about Iraq on the same day. And with all of the stresses of his day-to-day life, it was nice to see this propelled to the front of his issues. We need to keep it that way.



Talking Points: Sen. Heitkamp Discusses Native Issues

Courtesy Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s OfficeSen. Heidi Heitkamp, right, was in attendance for the Champions for Change ceremony in Washington, D.C. recently. Heitkamp is pictured with office intern and one of the five Champions for Change Danielle Finn.
Courtesy Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s Office
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, right, was in attendance for the Champions for Change ceremony in Washington, D.C. recently. Heitkamp is pictured with office intern and one of the five Champions for Change Danielle Finn.


Vincent Schilling, ICTMN


U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp is the first female elected from North Dakota. Since taking the oath of office on January 3, 2013, Heitkamp has shown herself to be a strong advocate fighting for the needs of Indian country as she has been since her role as state Attorney General beginning in 1990.

As a member on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Heitkamp has pledged to stand for Native American families and has worked to ensure the U.S. government lives up to treaty and trust responsibilities.

Last October, Heitkamp introduced a bill to improve the lives of Native American children that has received bipartisan support as well as another bill with Republican Senator Moran that would end the IRS’ practice of taxing crucial programs and services that aim to support the health and safety of Native families. Additionally she is an advocate for the Violence Against Women Act and better transportation and infrastructure on reservations.

In a conversation with ICTMN, Heitkamp shared her stance on the importance of working for the betterment of Indian country and why we should all fight for the needs of our children.

Can you tell us about your bill regarding the Commission on Native Children?

I don’t think there’s any aspect of Indian country that would be left untouched as we talk about children. It really comes to me from the words of Sitting Bull, who said “Let us now sit down and decide what kind of life we can make for our children,” I am paraphrasing, but if we stay focused on kids and our children we will make good choices and we will hopefully get better attention to the challenges for Native American families.

The important part of this commission is that we need to be looking at it from a holistic standpoint. You see people talk about Indian education or protection of our children or health care for our children or making sure that we have good transportation so that our kids can get to school. All of these things have a direct effect, but we worry about the programs and not about the outcomes.

For instance, I feel that Native languages are a huge component of the child bill because I think it is a way that we begin to grasp that cultural connection to heal families to provide the pride to move forward.

You played a key role in the Violence Against Women Act, you specifically pushed for tribal governments to gain authority to prosecute non-Native perpetrators, how are things going?

Currently three tribal courts have been selected as a sort of first pass – from there we will learn what tribal courts need to do as a court that has the authority and the jurisdiction to act over non-Native offenders.

We are taking those first steps but it is not enough to pass legislation. We have to be vigilant about making sure that that legislation is given its full effect. I think at this point, We are all grateful this is on track but we need to make sure that these test pilot tribal courts work.

None of these courts are in my state, I am really looking forward to seeing this implemented in my state so that Native American women do not and are not treated as second class citizens as it relates to the pursuit of justice.

I spent a lot of my time as Attorney General with domestic violence programs and it was one of the reasons why I ran for AG.

Can you speak on transportation infrastructure on reservations?

Obviously we are always road challenged in North Dakota. It doesn’t matter if you are at Township – We have issues with roads just given our weather patterns. One of the concerns that I have, Are the stories such as roads not getting plowed so that children cannot go to school or maybe grandma needs to get in for her diabetes treatment, but she cannot get out for groceries.

The frustration that I have is that we probably could see better cooperation between County and State officials along with tribal authorities – but the federal highway folks need to step up and do a better job allocating resources.

There is a great deal of concern about retention of overhead costs, so that these dollars don’t actually go back to the tribes, but are retained within the programs in Washington, D.C.

I realize that when we talk about roads, it is not going to fill up the room, but it might be (what is) most important to a Native American family. It is so important that we talk about this now as we’re looking at, again, reauthorizing the Highway Bill.

You are working to end the taxation of tribal programs through the IRS with Sen. Moran, can you explain?

We are very concerned about an IRS agent questioning the judgment of a sovereign entity as they relate to what constitutes general welfare. I think there’s a fair amount of a lack of understanding as to what tribal governments do and how culturally significant a lot of this is. To suggest that a family who receives funeral dinner and funeral services aught to be taxed on those services is to ignore the pervasive poverty on a reservation, but also it ignores the cultural significance of that expenditure.

I think that this is a great bipartisan effort. We hope that the IRS is starting to get it, but it is more important that we are not fighting this fight a year from now or two years from now and that we get some federal legislation that makes the intent of Congress clear in that it respects tribal sovereignty as it relates to their expenditure decisions.

One of the 2014 Champions for Change is your intern Danielle Finn.

She is a star! We are a little biased in that she is an intern in our office. She is going off to law school; she has tons of options. We are so proud of her and her family is so proud of her. We are just excited to see across the board that these champions for change are part of a hopeful program.

We see all of this wonderful opportunity for expansion of tribal leadership and it really makes us hopeful that there are so many people. I think we need to remember that there are some kids who are getting left behind. We need to celebrate these superstars and amazing kids, but we also need to know there are also very many students And young people who with the right set of circumstances could have equal achievement.

That motivates me as well. When you see these Champions For Change and think that it is not just them but there are probably hundreds of champions for change when given an opportunity.

We just need to keep that in mind and this is what my child’s commission bill is all about.



Sen. Heitkamp Discusses Her Plans to Help Native American Children

By Rob Capriccioso, Indian Country Today Media Network

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) says she owes a lot to Indian country, believing that the American Indian vote during her close race for a Senate seat last fall put her over the top for the win. She’s now returning the favor, telling Indian Country Today Media Network in an interview about her plans to pass legislation that would create a Commission on Native American Children.

Of all the many issues you face in the Senate, why did you decide to introduce a plan to find solutions to problems facing Native youth as your first bill?

I’m not new to this issue. When I look across the horizon and ask who needs a little more help, and where do we have some problems, it’s obviously in Indian country. They are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system; they are overrepresented in the foster care system. Thirty seven percent live in poverty, many live in substandard housing and have substandard educational opportunities. It’s not for lack of trying by the tribal governments and the schools, but right now, with sequestration, we have roofs that are not getting fixed in North Dakota. Who else is going to step up and provide that voice for these children who for so many years have struggled? The time has come. I can’t keep asking people to do something about it when I am in a position to take responsibility.

If your legislation passes and the commission is established, how will you measure its success?

I will measure its success by whether it is collaborated and not just the typical knee-jerk response. Many of my colleagues in the Senate don’t understand the additional challenges here, and I think this commission will give us the opportunity to do some broader education and get more people on board for long-term solutions. [I want to see] ideas that are culturally sensitive, but also that can produce results long term. I hope the commission will set us on a trajectory to provide a plan for improvement of the conditions for Native American kids.

Why a commission as opposed to some other form of addressing the issue?

I think a commission because, if you talk to Indian educators or Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement, everybody comes at it from their own perspectives. When I was attorney general, I did a big facilitation on juvenile justice, and basically, because of the people we invited, they were simply talking about detention centers. Well, that wasn’t the solution to kids getting in trouble on the reservation, in my opinion. So we need to bring in people from a multi-disciplinary approach who are committed to a process that will set us on a path for change. If I walk out of this office, whenever that is, and I have not done something that improves the conditions for Native American children in my state and in this country, I will not feel successful as a United State senator.

The commission ends after three years—why that timeframe?

Because we can’t waste another generation.

The cost of the commission is $2 million—is cost going to be a sticking point in the current congressional budgetary climate?

We are trying to find solutions, and I think there are going to be so many people excited about this, I think you will see so many people [in Congress] stepping up. It’s not new money, it will be a reallocation, and I hoping that will get a lot of buy in. Two million is a lot of money, but we just spent copy68 million a day shutting down government. Where are our priorities?

Where will the money be reallocated from?

The Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Interior. It’s basically asking them all to pony up a small amount to fund the commission.

Will tribes receive any money?

The $2 million is just for the costs of the commission. It’s not going to act as an appropriator. It is going to show the things we can do working collaboratively in a government-to-government relationship.

Who will sit on the commission? Any tribal citizens?

It will be appointees of the president, the Senate majority Leader, the minority leader in the Senate, and the majority and minority speakers in the House. Whoever they want. We expect that tribal citizens will be invited to serve on both the commission and its advisory committee. I prefer that the appointees be from Indian country.

How is your relationship with tribes evolving?

I think most tribal leaders would say I had a fairly good relationship with them before I entered the Senate. I think I’ve always approached tribal governments as sovereign governments with sovereign people. We have to be respectful of the government-to-government relationship. And I understand treaty rights, and look at them from a lens of contractual responsibilities. I think my relationship has only gotten stronger with tribes in the last year.

Did the Indian vote help you win your race?

It would be hard to say no, wouldn’t it? It was a huge factor in my campaign.

Native children are obviously a huge priority for you, what other Indian country issues will you be taking the lead on?

One of the issues I have been involved with is looking at the IRS intrusion into sovereign tribal assistance to tribal people. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and I have the lead bill there, trying to roll back IRS excess. Indian housing is also a huge issue for me. I’m on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and intend to be a very active member of that committee. I want to see that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is not seen as the forgotten stepchild of the Department of the Interior. I want its needs to be front and center.

Lastly, you have introduced the bill to establish the commission with Sen. Lisa Murkowski—a Republican. How important is bipartisanship in Congress on Indian issues?

Especially on this issue, it’s absolutely critical. In the end, if we are going to follow up with reallocation of resources; if we’re going to respond with resources, we need to build as broad a base as possible and get as much buy in as we possibly can to implement the recommendations of the commission.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.