Column: Let’s talk and talk about reservation problems
By Lloyd Omdahl, Columnist
Over the next three years, we are going to do a lot of talking about problems on the Indian reservations.
As a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Heidi Heitkamp has introduced legislation to create an 11-member, three-year Commission on Native Children.
Sen. John Hoeven, and a number of other senators with large Indian constituencies, have joined Heitkamp on the proposal.
The panel would submit a report to Congress recommending ways to improve life for Indian children. Heitkamp hopes this will produce a national plan for funding Indian education.
To do some fact-finding, Heitkamp went to the Standing Rock Reservation south of Bismarck-Mandan. Accompanied by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler, she visited with tribal and school officials about the needs.
Tribal Council Member Jay Taken Alive was skeptical. If the commission is ever created and makes a report, he doubts that the federal government will ever provide the funds.
Then there is the 12-member advisory committee, co-chaired by former Sen. Byron Dorgan, named by Attorney General Eric Holder to study violence involving Indian children. When in office, Dorgan chaired the Senate Indian Affairs committee.
Dorgan is quoted as saying that “We’ve got a lot of Indian children in this country living in Third World conditions” and “It has to change.” He’s right.
Four hearings of the advisory committee were scheduled so more talking could be done.
While I think both of these study committees are worthwhile, I share Taken Alive’s skepticism.
As lieutenant governor, I chaired the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission for Gov. George Sinner for four years. We rotated monthly meetings among the four reservations.
The meetings were opportunities to hold the white man’s feet to the fire. Tribal leaders could let off steam about the failure of the federal and state governments to honor the level of commitment to which Native Americans were entitled.
So every month we would gather and talk about the problems. Because the state appropriations for Native American programs were so meager, all we could do is talk. So we talked and we talked. We could do little else.
North Dakota now has money — a lot of money. But will that change our priorities so that some of this money will be used to finance gaps in federal programming? I’m skeptical.
Even though it is time for the state to assume some financial responsibility, in the past we have been too willing to neglect Indian problems, arguing that these were federal matters. That let us off the hook.
Our policy process is rigged against small minorities, regardless of the legitimacy of their complaints. Indians are a distinct minority in a political system that only responds to majorities or economic clout. So implementing plans by either the state or national government will be an uphill fight all the way.
And anyone who believes that problems on Indian reservations can be solved without money must also believe that the moon is made of cheese.
It was very appropriate for Baesler to accompany Heitkamp to Standing Rock. Her presence underscored the importance of education. Next to personal safety, an education system wrought with low attendance, dropouts and lack of academic discipline is the most critical problem for Native American kids.
Education must have federal and state support, but it must also have tribal and parental support. Without that support, it isn’t going to change.
So there will be a lot of talking over the next couple years about the problems in reservations. Let’s hope it results in action.
(Lloyd Omdahl, of Grand Forks, is a former lieutenant governor, state tax commissioner and state budget director)