In recent years, the discourse surrounding minority communities’ development has become a key component in political, economic, and social policy at all levels. Every day, we discuss the racial injustice and discrimination people of color often face, the Islamaphobia towards refugees from primarily Muslim countries, and the need for reform and protection for undocumented Latinx people.
However one of the country’s oldest minority groups regularly go without mention.
In the wake of the recent victory in rerouting the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would have potentially tainted the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux people, issues regarding Native people are finally garnering nationwide attention when they’ve been commonly overlooked in the past. Though the pipeline rerouting may be the most recent victory, a unanimous bipartisan decision to start a commission researching the betterment and welfare of Native children, signed into law in October, aims to create and develop long-term victories in generations of Native people to come.
Signed into law as S. 246, the “Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commision on Native Children Act” was officially created and signed by President Barack Obama in mid-October. The commission was a bipartisan effort led by U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) who serve some of the country’s highest Native populations as representatives of North Dakota and Alaska. The legislation saw unanimous, bipartisan support and is one of the most impactful changes to Native children since the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which sought to keep Native children within Native communities. Previously, they’d been forcibly removed by private and public agencies.
Named after the late chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Tribe, Alyce Spotted Wolf, and the late Native Alaskan minister and activist, Walter Soboleff, the commission will center on focused research looking at current programs serving Native American, Hawaiian, and Alaskan children to assess whether necessary resources are being provided to them at the tribal, state, local, and federal levels. Once the research is completed, the commission is tasked with developing programs and systems meant to directly address many of the challenges that Native children face, which can be hard to measure.
The three most impactful areas the commission will focus on are financial and economic sustainability; graduation rates and the availability to tribal and nontribal educational resources; and socioeconomic conditions and the effect those conditions can have on children.
While these aren’t the only issues being researched, they are areas in which Native children experience the most vulnerability in their lives- more so, in fact, than any other subgroup of children in the country.
“We know that these are children who frequently suffer from high poverty rates, high crime rates and a lot of despair,” said Senator Heitkamp when she spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network during the commission’s first attempt to be passed by senate in 2015.
Per capita, Native children graduate at rates lower than any group in the country, have the highest rates of poverty, and the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse, which strongly correlate with the struggles of socioeconomic imbalance. They also share a high vulnerability, similar to black youth, to post-traumatic stress, rivaling levels experienced by adult soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, which come with the pressures of historic and generational stress coupled with environmental stressors they currently face.
By developing new programs and strategies, or improving programs already set in place, new generations of Native children can be positioned to better overcome the obstacles and boundaries previously faced. For current generations of Native children and teens who are transitioning into adulthood, the commission will also conduct research on financial support and allocation of public and private grants that assist children as they grow and pursue careers, business ventures, and secondary education.
Though this commission will conduct nationwide research which potentially affects all Native children, the commission will have a huge impact in New York State, home of the Haudenosaunee and Six Nations. Many programs that aim to improve and assist Native children, like Rochester’s own Native American Future Stewards Program, the Native American Cultural Center, and the Ganondagan historical site, could potentially be assisted and supported through grants to continue to promote cultural and educational development while providing a familiar experience for Native children who have traditionally been surrounded by Native cultures.
“I think it will definitely help instill more confidence in Native students as they start leaving their reservations and tribes,” said Timothy Dora, a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Turtle Clan. “I think it could also help spread awareness of cultures and people, not only from other tribes, but help non-Native people learn more about Native cultures without negatively affecting them. This commission really seems like it’s heading us in a good direction to be able to feel comfortable as Natives and relieve a lot of us of this incredible stress I didn’t know we had.”
The commission, while still new, will be governed by three individuals who will be assisted by the executive branch of the federal government and the Office of Tribal Justice within the Department of Justice. As the inauguration of a new President draws near, it is expected that the commission will be chosen by the Obama Administration before leaving office and support his history of meeting, analyzing, and supporting efforts to improve the condition in which Native people have been placed.