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My Reflections: Native American Heritage Month

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November is Native American Heritage Month.  As a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and an Executive Committee member at the Democratic National Committee, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on what the Democratic Party has done to honor and provide opportunities to our communities and Indian Country as a whole.  

Democrats have a long history of partnership with tribal communities, from the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934—nicknamed the Indian New Deal—to President Obama’s leadership on issues such as enhancing tribal jurisdiction and addressing Indian healthcare.  Democrats have worked with and empowered tribes to address their challenges and have demonstrated a keen awareness of the critical importance to our nation and its cultural fabric to ensure the protection of the rich heritage and distinct cultures of the more than 500 tribes around our nation. 

President Obama and Democrats, through both words and deeds, have demonstrated a true understanding that tribal nations themselves are in the best position to address the challenges they face.  Accordingly, the role of the United States is to work in partnership with tribes to enhance the opportunities available and provide tools so that tribes can flourish politically and economically while meeting the challenges of the 21st Century.  The Democratic Party is the party that lives by this approach.

The challenges facing many tribal communities are great.  In too many places in Indian Country, Native people are disproportionately affected by the scourges of poverty, unemployment, lack of adequate health care, and high rates of suicide.  Native women are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than any other racial or gender category.  But with the partnership and strong leadership of the President and many other Democrats, progress can be and is being made.

For example, when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, he made certain that it included the reauthorization and enhancement of the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act, which will lead to better health outcomes in tribal communities.  Moreover, at this month’s White House Tribal Nations Conference, he even called out the good work the Puyallup Tribe is doing in their health clinic in my home state of Washington.  The ACA provided the Puyallup Tribe with increased flexibility to better tailor healthcare to the needs of its tribal community.  There have been dramatic enhancements regarding access to hospice, assisted living, long-term and home- and community-based care. All of these things we desperately need and all of these things Democrats stood and fought for together with Indian Country.

In addition, Democrats and President Obama’s Administration have made jobs a priority and are working tirelessly to create more well-paying jobs that can support a family. In Indian Country, where unemployment often exceeds 50 percent, this focus on jobs is most welcome. 

And, just a few months ago, President Obama established the first-ever White House Council on Native American Affairs.  This working group recognizes the unique relationship between the United States government and our tribal governments, and strives to promote and sustain tribal nations for years to come.  I can’t tell you how proud I was to see that Council at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, where it fielded town-hall-style questions directly from our tribal leaders on the difficult issues facing Indian Country.  That shows a true commitment from our President to make that Council a working group for change in Indian Country and not just a symbolic gesture.

There is, of course, far more work to be done, but this record of achievement demonstrates that our President and Democrats get it.  With this approach in place, the difficult and often seemingly intractable issues tribes have faced for far too long can and will be successfully addressed. 

From the earliest days of our country’s founding, the contributions that Natives have made to the broader American story are immeasurable and often painful.  Knowing that I get to work hand in hand with the Democratic Party and President Obama to help my community makes me proud.  This month, as we recognize Native American Heritage Month, it’s important that we recognize the progress we have made, but also look ahead to the work we have yet to do together.

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