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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I rise today to speak to an issue in my State of Alaska, in the State of North Dakota--quite honestly, in so many of our home States. We have facts, we have statistics, and we have issues that face our indigenous peoples, most particularly our indigenous children that, truth be told, are not what we want to write home about. In fact, in many, many cases, these statistics are shameful.

The effort and the initiative to make a difference in the lives of the children of our first peoples is an effort I want to speak to today, and I join with my colleague from North Dakota in addressing this issue. I want to help shine a light on the conditions facing indigenous children in our country to whom the United States has a legal commitment. This is a Federal trust responsibility that is owed to these children.

I thank Senator Heitkamp for her commitment and for her compassion to address these issues facing our Nation's indigenous children by introducing legislation to establish the Commission on Native Children. I will defer to my colleague so we can have a conversation about this, but it is important to note that the very first time I had ever met Senator Heitkamp, we literally exchanged handshakes, introduced ourselves, and within 5 minutes we were talking about children's issues, Native children's issues in our respective States. That little 5-minute discussion led to much further discussion later on and a commitment to work to address these issues.

I do have many remarks I would like to make this afternoon, but I would like my colleague from North Dakota, who has worked so diligently on this issue, with her staff working with my staff, to describe to our colleagues the legislation that today we are both introducing establishing the Commission on Native Children.

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Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I thank my colleague. I appreciate that as we work to advance opportunities for American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian children throughout the country, we remember these are not just statistics. As horrifying as these statistics are, these statistics truly do come to life when we hear those real stories.

When we were working with the Senator's office to develop this legislation, kind of looking at the indigenous children in this country through the lens of the justice system, the education system, the health care system, and then work to provide recommendations to the respective government agencies that will help to address these issues that affect our Native children, we talk about the trust responsibility.

That trust responsibility does not mean anything unless we keep our commitment. We just simply are not keeping the commitment. The Senator mentioned the issue of housing. Having had an opportunity to serve on the Indian Affairs Committee now for 10 years, we hear in committee hearing after committee hearing the situation with regard to housing and the inadequate situation on so many of our reservations.

In the State of Alaska, our housing situation is truly a crisis in so many places. Bethel, which is probably--I believe it is now our fourth or fifth largest community in the State--is viewed as a hub community. So if you come in for health care from one of the surrounding villages, you come into Bethel. If you are trying to escape an abusive situation, trying to get your children to safety, leaving the village, you come into Bethel, where there is a women's shelter where you can kind of pull yourself together.

But the problem then is, when you have been able to pull yourself together, when your children feel they are in a safe place right now, then there is no place for you to take your children. There is no housing out on the market there in Bethel. So what happens. Time after time after time the woman goes back to the abuser, the children go back to an abusive situation, a situation where domestic violence is oftentimes out of control.

Let me speak to just some of the statistics that we are facing in dealing with rural justice in Alaska. Nearly 95 percent of the crimes in rural Alaska can be traced back to alcohol abuse. By the time an Alaska Native reaches adulthood, the chance of experiencing domestic violence or sexual violence is 51 percent for women, 29 percent for men. On Native children, 60 percent of the children are in need of foster parents. I have been working on the issue of fetal alcohol syndrome and how we raise awareness and how we eliminate this entirely preventable disease.

I think it is noteworthy that for years I worked with Senator Daschle, formerly of this body and the majority leader, on this initiative. But he knew that on the reservations in his State, they were facing the same situation that we were in Alaska with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. In Alaska, we have the highest rate of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the Nation. But in the Native areas of the State, they are then 15 times higher than in any of the non-Native parts of the State; again, an area where we think, if we can make some inroads in awareness, this is a disease that is 100 percent preventable.

Suicide is an issue that strikes home to far too many. Alaska Native males between the ages of 12 and 24 experience the highest rate of suicide of any demographic within the country. We have the highest rate of suicides per capita in the country. It is our young Native men who drive that statistic.

When it comes to rape statistics, also a horrific example, unfortunately, the term has been applied that Alaska is the ``rape capital of America.'' It is our Native women--one in three--who are experiencing much of the sexual abuse. We cannot accept this reality.

When we talk about infrastructure--I mentioned housing. We think about the lack of public infrastructure and how that impacts the health of a child or the health of a family. We are still a relatively young State. You have heard me say 80 percent of our communities are not accessible by road. So we lack certain infrastructure, including in many of our villages basic water, basic sewer systems. We simply do not have it. If you do not have clean water for cooking, for drinking, for cleaning, just basic hygiene, it can be deadly for our families.

The CDC has determined that lack of inhome water services causes high rates of respiratory and skin infections. We see this in our rural Native villages. The average toddler in the United States gets RSV, which is this respiratory syncytial virus, before they are about 2 years old. The average Alaska Native baby gets RSV before they are 11 weeks old. So they are just mere infants and they are getting this respiratory virus because of sanitation issues.

A lack of clean drinking water, proper wastewater systems leads to fever, to hepatitis, leads to infectious disease. Then what happens? You are a child out in the small village. You are then sent in, your family has to take you into Anchorage, not just one airplane flight away, oftentimes two airplane flights, $1,000-plus airfare in the city where your costs are high.

You think about the impact to a family when you have a sick infant, an infant who has been sick because their family lacks basic sanitation in this day and age.

One of the household chores--and we all had chores when we were growing up as kids. In far too many of our villages in the State of Alaska, one of the chores the kids have is emptying the honey bucket. For those who do not know what a honey bucket is, a honey bucket is the big 5-gallon bucket that you get from Home Depot with a toilet seat lid on it that is put in the corner of the house. That is the bathroom.

You have to take that bucket out and dispose of it. You have children, your 10-year old walking down the boardwalk with a bucket of human waste to dump. This is happening in this day and this age. Who, again, bears the weight of so much of this is our Native children. Think about this from a health safety perspective.

I wish to share a story, as my colleague from North Dakota did, and then--I just came from the Alaska Federation of Natives annual conference. It is the largest gathering of Natives in the country. They come from all corners of the State. It is truly like a family reunion, usually a very upbeat, very happy occasion where people come together for a great deal of sharing.

This year there was sharing on a personal side that perhaps we have not witnessed before. Much of the sharing came from children, and sharing, rather than stories of happiness and opportunities for the future, was driven by a feeling of not helplessness--because if you are helpless you will not speak up--but a feeling that we can no longer remain silent.

The instances of domestic violence in the home, of child sexual assault in the home, of alcoholism and drug abuse that brings about attempted suicide in the home caused a group of 4-H kids from Tanana, AK, to come together--about a half dozen of them--ages maybe 6, 7, up to high school, to stand in front of an audience of 3,000-plus people and say: We have had enough. We have to speak out, even though we have been told do not talk about this; do not talk about this because it might shame your family. These children had the courage to step forward and say: This is not right. We are taught to respect our elders, but when our elders do not respect us, we are going to speak out. Their courage in front of this huge gathering was amazing. It is not unlike the story my colleague from North Dakota just told when that young girl looked out the window and said: Who will come and take care of me? Who is waiting for me?

These children from Tanana were saying: We are not going to be quiet.

It ought to be us. It ought to be the grownups who are saying: Let's take charge of this. Let's turn these horrible statistics around. Let's make every day a better day for our children. Those kids are the real heroes.

So when I come together with my colleagues in an effort such as this--I am with the Senator--oftentimes we say: Oh, commissions. What do commissions do? Maybe this starts to give some of these young people hope, whether you are on the reservations in North Dakota or whether you are in Tanana, AK. Maybe there is hope that the grownups out there are listening and can work with them.

We are trying to look at this holistically, through the education system, the health care system, and through the justice system. I am quite pleased to be able to work with my colleague on this initiative. I do not think there is anything more important that we can be doing for our young people than to offer them a ray of hope.

I thank my colleague from North Dakota and all she has done to get us to this point.

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Ms. MURKOWSKI. If I may close out my comments, Senator Heitkamp has honored an individual, Alyce Spotted Bear, by naming this commission on Native American children after Alyce Spotted Bear. She has invited me to also include a leader on so many education and children's issues.

I wish to take a moment to speak to the contributions of a great Alaskan, Dr. Walter Soboleff. Senator Heitkamp has honored Alaskans by including Dr. Soboleff with the naming of this children's commission.

I was very honored to learn of Dr. Soboleff, who passed away in 2011 at 102 years old. In our State he was an elder statesman. He was a spiritual leader and an Alaska Native advocate who championed Alaska Native rights and cultural education. He was the first Alaska Native to serve on our State Board of Education, in which he served as chairman. He established the Alaska Native Studies Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to ensure that our Native students could be taught their history, culture, and language within that university system.

Clearly, when one is 102 years old, they live through a transition of time, but he lived through a transition for our Native people in our State. He advocated to ensure that our State's education system recognized that Native students must know their culture. In order to know who they are, they need to know where they have come from. They need to know their culture. They need to know how to hunt, how to fish, and that their culture is the foundation of a strong identity, ensuring student success and pride in oneself.

When I thought about how we might be able to recognize one of Alaska's own who demonstrated to our young people that if you know yourself, if you know your culture, if you are proud of that, even under some daunting challenges, you can move forward. You can persevere.

I thank my colleague for giving me this opportunity to show him recognition as we also honor Alyce Spotted Bear.

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