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.