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U.S. Senate passes bill for commission on Native youth

The U.S. Senate passed a bill late Monday to establish a commission to find out how federal programs can better serve the nation's struggling Native youth.

The bill was born out of the shared interests of its co-sponsors Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and North Dakota Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Murkowski said in an interview Tuesday.

Murkowski and Heitkamp first met at a gathering of women senators in 2013. "The two of us started talking about Native children and some of the disparities that we see in Alaska and that she sees in North Dakota," and soon realized they were the only two left at the meeting. That "animated" conversation led to collaboration on the Indian Affairs Committee and the bill that passed Monday night, Murkowski said.

"We have some pretty troubling statistics when it comes to Alaska Native children and Native American children around the country when it comes to things like suicide rates, child mortality, high school graduation rates, [and] poverty levels. They're daunting challenges," Murkowski said. "There are some tough questions that need to be asked."

Senate Bill 246 is aimed at rectifying "chronic underfunding" of federal funding focused at Native children, of which there are more than 2 million under the age of 24 in the U.S., according to the bill. Thirty-seven percent of them live in poverty, 17 percent have no health insurance and child mortality is on the rise, the bill says, citing high suicide rates and rampant violence.

Native children are twice as likely to be in foster care than the general population, and face steep challenges related to violence, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and access to education and health care.

Murkowski and Heitkamp's legislation would establish a commission that would recommend -- to Congress and the White House -- improvements in federal policies, data collection and programs serving Native children.

"What we're trying to do is get a better focus on the extent of the problem through coordination of resources, working together to make sure that we're understanding the data that we're collecting to better hone in on some of the answers," Murkowski said.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously Monday night, but has yet to be introduced in the House. It drew bipartisan support before the floor vote, with 18 Democratic and 8 Republican co-sponsors.

Even with passage by the full Congress, the commission would still have to get $2 million in appropriations.

Murkowski has her argument ready -- that the commission is a relatively minimal investment that could yield real long-term benefits. It is "money upfront that, I think, is well spent and quite honestly is long, long overdue," Murkowski said.

The bill -- and the commission that would stem from it -- is named for tribal leaders Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff. Alyce Spotted Bear was tribal chairwoman for three North Dakota tribes. Soboleff, a Tlingit, was the first Alaska Native chairman of the Alaska Board of Education.