Tlingit children from the Keex Kwaan dance group perform at “Celebration,” a Native Alaskan gathering in Juneau, Alaska, in 2014. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

It can feel as if there is no end to the staggering challenges that many Native American children face in the United States:

One-third of those under 18 live in poverty. The suicide rate of native people between the ages of 15 and 24 is 2.5 times the national average. Native students graduate from high school at a lower rate than any other racial or ethnic group.

When Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) was elected in 2012, she resolved to use her new position in Washington to help create better conditions for native youths. Joining forces with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), she has pushed to establish a new Commission on Native Children to study the problems that children face and come up with recommendations to address them.

The bill to establish that commission passed with unanimous, bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, and President Obama signed it into law on Friday, saying in a statement that he is hopeful that the new effort “will help ensure all our young people can reach their full potential.”

“During my own visits to Indian Country, I have been inspired by the talent and enthusiasm of young people who want nothing more than to make a positive difference in their communities,” said Obama, who has spoken publicly about the emotional experience he and his wife, Michelle, had during a 2014 visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation in North Dakota, where they heard from six young people about their families’ battles with homelessness, suicide and addiction.

Another commission, another study — it’s easy to be skeptical about the ultimate effect of this bill. But Heitkamp said she believes that it’s an important first step toward making real change for young people.

“If you told me five things you want done, Heidi, that would change outcomes for native kids, I don’t know that I know that. I don’t know if anyone in public policy knows that,” Heitkamp said. “We’ve got some ideas, but we need expertise at a level that this commission will provide.”


Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) pays a visit to the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara (MHA) Nation’s Head Start in May 2016. (Courtesy of the Office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp)

The bill calls for an 11-person commission with members who specialize in juvenile justice, social work, education, and mental and physical health. Because supporters say they believe children should have a voice in discussions about children, the commission will be advised by a group of youths from each Bureau of Indian Affairs service area and Hawaii.

They will examine Indian Country issues such as poverty, unemployment in native communities, child abuse and domestic violence, crime and substance abuse, and the lack of economic opportunity. And in three years, they’ll issue recommendations for change.

Tami Decoteau, a Bismarck, N.D., psychologist who specializes in trauma, said the commission will raise awareness not just about the issues that native people face, but also about native people themselves. “Indian issues have been overlooked for so long that it is important to me to see that both parties are beginning to pay attention to our children,” said Decoteau, an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation.

She said that a close study by the commission carries the promise of identifying and executing solutions to problems that have their root in historical trauma. Those answers, she said, lie in tapping tribal traditions, including in rhythm, movement and kinship. “People who don’t understand often make the assumption that the conditions in which Indian people live are due to their poor choices,” she said. “But its not a choice, it’s not a moral problem, it’s a socioeconomic problem that can be solved with proper funding and resources.”

The official name of the new body is the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children, named after a former tribal chairwoman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation in North Dakota and an Alaska Native elder.