The North Dakota Senator Advocating for Native Children

Meet Heidi Heitkamp

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When I was asked to interview North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp for Lenny, I read three sentences about her and immediately said yes. It was hard to compute this woman: She ran for office for the first time in her 20s; she's a breast-cancer survivor and a fierce advocate for Native American kids. Native issues are important to me because of my heritage, my community, and my work as an actress, but they should be important to everyone. The statistics in tribal communities for poverty, suicide, domestic violence, and substance abuse are some of the worst in the nation. It is a challenging arena in which to try to make progress, and Senator Heitkamp seemed like an anomaly of vision and strength. When I got her on the phone, she confirmed my awe: She is committed to fighting for Native children, and she will not stop until there is a major change.

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One step in her plan started when Senator Heitkamp met Senator Lisa Murkowski at a Senate women's dinner in 2013. They discovered that they shared a strong desire to improve the chances that Native kids have to thrive. They came up with a bipartisan bill that would create a commission on Native children that would study issues facing these kids and make recommendations about how to ensure that they receive better care. Heitkamp and Murkowski then amassed a small army of supporters — including Senators Al Franken and Jon Tester, both of whom represent states with large reservations — and Heitkamp, Franken, and Tester decided to educate their colleagues in the Democratic caucus.

People started asking to come to North Dakota, to visit the reservations and see their environments firsthand. Senator Heitkamp believes that once people are aware of the situation and a human connection is established, they will feel the way that she does — that these are all our children too — and they will be compelled to help out. Her bill passed unanimously in the Senate, and she is now working on getting it passed in the House. In addition to her imperative work on Native children, we also discussed how women are a vital and necessary part of problem-solving in public service, what made her decide to run for office, and why losing a political race was more difficult than beating breast cancer.

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Julia Jones: Were you interested in politics growing up, or did the desire to run for office come later in life?

Heidi Heitkamp: I remember watching the presidential primaries in 1968. I was in the eighth grade. That's the first time that I remember really paying attention. I think it was a combination of the insecurity that we all felt about the Vietnam War and about race relations in general. It was a time of a lot of turmoil and a lot of discussion. My dad's a World War II vet, and you see it through the lens of your parents, but you also appreciate what's happening in your peer group. I remember watching the California primary results and how I felt when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. I'd been so young when JFK was killed, but RFK's death had a profound effect, especially coming just three months after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. I was interested in what we could do, how the country was going to progress from there.

I was always interested in public policy. I never thought I would be in an elected position. I always thought I would be the staff person, the campaign manager, whatever it might be. Kent Conrad, who was a senator from North Dakota whose seat I have now, became a really good friend and a mentor. I went to work for him. He really encouraged me to think about running for public office.

I first ran for state auditor when I was 28. I ran that race because I had been encouraging women to step up and get on the ballot. It was what I think of as the first "Year of the Woman." Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro [as his vice president]. We had a woman who was running for lieutenant governor [in North Dakota], and I thought it was important that women at least offered themselves up for public service. I didn't win, but then, when Kent was elected to the Senate, the governor appointed me tax commissioner. Then that began my successful electoral career until 2000, when I ran a race for governor and lost. I was diagnosed that September with stage-three breast cancer. That didn't help.

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We finished out that campaign, and I didn't think I would ever go back into elected politics. But in 2010, I saw those elections and thought, We're once again ripping the country apart. There are commonalities, and there are things that we can get done, even though we disagree. It was really my belief that we needed to bring people who had a different perspective. We're not so entrenched in the kind of political culture of Washington, D.C., to try and interject some common sense and some movement forward. I ran in 2012. No one thought I was going to win. Nate Silver gave me an 8 percent chance of winning, but I was successful.

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I always tell people: when you looked at the markers in my cancer, I had a 29 percent chance of living ten years. I had an 8 percent chance of being in the Senate. I'm a living example that if you just get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other, sometimes you can change outcomes.

JJ: You've said that women tend to be more hesitant to take risks. Why? Do you think it's because they want to be perfect?

HH: They're not conditioned to take risks. Yeah, they want to be liked, probably, more. Or they have already done a self-evaluation, which a lot of men don't do, and have come up with every reason why they're not qualified, as opposed to looking at all the reasons why they are qualified. I don't think it's confidence as much as it is a self-criticism.

JJ: Did surviving breast cancer alter your perspective on politics and policy?

HH: I always tell people, "I always thought I was going to survive breast cancer. Losing an election altered my attitude about politics."

JJ: [Laughs.] Oh, man! You don't mean that losing the election was a bigger challenge than surviving breast cancer, obviously.

HH: No, I do!

JJ: Really?

HH: I do mean that. Yeah. This is the other side — you ask, "Why don't women take risks?" Because we are afraid of failure, and failure really hurts. For me, I always thought I was going to survive breast cancer. I went through extensive chemotherapy. I went through extensive radiation. I had radical surgery. That wasn't as life-altering as losing an election.

JJ: You've long been an advocate for Native American kids. Why did this cause speak to you so much?

HH: It's about being where you are. I've traveled to Latin America. I've been to Central America. I've been to Mexico, where I have met with young children who are victims of human trafficking. I have been to Africa and seen extreme poverty, and I'm moved by that. I feel compelled to do what I can, but I have an obligation, as someone who represents North Dakota, to represent all of North Dakota. If you asked, "Where is the greatest injustice in the state of North Dakota?," I would tell you, "The greatest injustice is with Native American children." I have a unique obligation to represent those children.

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One of the greatest compliments someone gave me is, "You're not a do-gooder." She meant that I'm not there to rescue anyone. I'm there to work collaboratively with Native families and with tribal organizations and with tribal governments to help be that voice with Native people to change outcomes.

JJ: What are the biggest challenges in making your commission on Native American children effective?

HH: I think that the biggest challenge is convincing people that a commission matters, that actually looking at the issue differently matters. Writing letters, doing commissions, doing studies. That always seems like lip service, but for me it's not, and I'll tell you why. So much of Indian policy is siloed. We talk about the Indian housing program. We talk about the Bureau of Indian Education. We talk about the Indian Health Service. I've just given you three different agencies, right? When we talk about law enforcement, we have to talk to the Department of Justice and to the F.B.I., which in many reservations in my state have primacy on investigating major crimes.

Everything that we do is looking at it from a program standpoint. It's not looking at the well-being of children. It's saying, "Well, we're doing this program and that program." I don't care what kind of program we're doing. What is our outcome? Are children growing up in homes that are safe, without black mold on the wall? Let's start there. Are they growing up in homes that aren't housing 20 people in a house built for 5? Are they growing up with quality education? Can they go to school because they have a coat in the winter? We hear from our tribal authorities that the school bus won't pick up kids who don't have a coat. Do they have access to nutrition? Do they have access to health care?

These are all fundamental questions. That's what we're trying to do with the commission bill, is stop saying "Is this program successful?" None of that matters if the child's not successful.

JJ: Right. I think you just answered my next question, but I'll ask it anyway, if there's anything you want to add. There are so many federal programs available in tribal communities, health services, food programs, and other forms of assistance, and yet the situation doesn't seem to be improving. It seems to be getting worse. How would your proposal be different, and where does the change need to start?

HH: If we start looking at outcomes, we start looking at what children need. The first thing children need is a healthy family. Many children on the reservation don't have healthy families. [Former North Dakota senator] Byron Dorgan was asked by the Department of Justice to chair a commission on trauma for children as a result of witnessing domestic violence and other forms of abuse. Native American children, we believe, in many places, have post-traumatic-stress rates equal to what an Iraqi War vet would have. These are children. One of the great initiatives that I hope comes from this is a better understanding and a reevaluation of trauma.

JJ: In an ideal but realistic world, what does life on reservations look like? How do you reconcile tribes as sovereign nations with their dependence on federal programs, grants, and aids?

HH: You can't start from the sense that it's dependence. It is a treaty obligation. Tribes have a right to health care; they have a treaty right to housing, in many cases. They have a treaty right to hunting and fishing. Let's start there. The problem is that those treaties have never been fully funded, and many of the tribes will come to me and say, "Look, we've stopped hoping that the federal government will live up to their obligations, but we need help in transitioning to self-determination."

What does that look like? It looks like economic opportunity, and not economic opportunity where someone comes in and says, "We're going to build a factory, and you're all going to work there." Really? Well, maybe they don't want to work at a factory. So we've been working to build out capacity for entrepreneurship. We got a big grant to help with small businesses. To talk about what those economic opportunities can be, we need to make sure the tools are on the reservations, in terms of broadband and cell coverage.

We need healthy families, and healthy families are employed families, and families that live drug- and alcohol-free, and who have treatment for their trauma. If you said, "What does it look like?" It looks like full employment. It looks like great-quality education, great-quality health care, and a place where they can practice and appreciate their cultural connections. That's why we're really big on language. Making sure that Native languages have a place, because that's part of restoring the cultural connections and the family connections that will make a difference in recovery.

JJ: I recently visited several reservations in Nevada, and people didn't understand how the U.S. government could improve living conditions for people suffering in other countries but not people suffering from extreme poverty in their own communities. What would you say to them?

HH: I'd say, "You're right. You've been invisible for generations. As long as I draw breath, I'm going to make sure that I'm doing everything to make sure that you're not invisible, but that we offer hope."

JJ: Besides Native issues, what are other areas of policy that you feel particularly passionate about?

HH: In North Dakota, we've started an initiative called Strong and Safe Communities. The Native piece is one piece of that, but it is a challenge keeping rural communities viable. If you look at poverty levels in America, there's much more pervasive poverty in rural America. There aren't a lot of people who wake up every day thinking about farms and about rural America. I do. That's where I came from. I came from a town of 90 people. My family was one-tenth of the population. I get the challenges, but we can't leave rural communities behind.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Julia Jones is an actress living in Los Angeles.

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