NEW TOWN Children from the Black Lodge Head Start carried pictures of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., in their hands as they arrived at the Northern Lights Community Center in New Town to wait for her arrival. They wanted her to autograph their pictures.
When she arrived, Heitkamp greeted elders of the Three Affiliated Tribes at the community center who were there for their noon Elders' Program meal. She then proceeded to tables with the Head Start 4-year-old kids visiting with each one and writing each one's name and her name on each child's photo.
Heitkamp, on a one-day visit to the Fort Berthold Reservation, told those gathered in the community center that the election is over. "And I would really challenge all the leadership of North Dakota, like the leadership you see here on your reservation, the leadership I see across North Dakota on Indian Country and really off Indian Country, that we put aside whatever differences we have, whatever disagreements we have, and start addressing the concerns and the issues."
Adriane White Buffalo, right, watches as Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., autographs a photograph for her at the Northern Lights Community Center in New Town Wednesday
She told the group she will continue to work with everyone. "Whatever side of the aisle they are on, if they have a mutual interest in solving problems in our state, I will sit at any table. I will do anything that I can to change the outcomes of things that we see that are wrong," she said.
"Let's start with the little ones, let's start with education, let's start with sequestration. Sequestration has hit your reservation harder than anybody else in North Dakota, with the possible exception of the air bases and the National Guard," she continued.
"We have got to restore our commitments we've got to restore our commitments to Head Start, we've got to restore our commitments to K through 12, we've got to restore our commitment to the tribal colleges because that's our future. These children here," she said, indicating the Head Start group of 4-year-olds listening," she said.
Fort Berthold Reservation is in the heart of the Bakken oil development.
"Our future isn't in the oil well pumping out there. That might help get us to our future," Heitkamp said. "But our future is here with these beautiful children and these elders in this room who know this," she said. She said elders want these children to have "a good start, a safe start, a healthy start, a good education, good opportunity right here at home in their community. So how do we do that?"
In regard to housing issues on the reservation, Heitkamp said Fort Berthold is not unique in housing difficulties in North Dakota but it is probably extreme in housing difficulties. She said she knows there are one, two, three and even four generations of people living under one roof. "We have got to solve this problem, we have got to change the outcome in housing," she said.
Heitkamp told them the committees and subcommittees she is on in Washington the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Agriculture Committee and chair of the Rural Development Subcommittee.
She also serves on the Banking and Housing Committee which has jurisdiction over housing. She said that means a housing official comes to see her every day. "The first question I ask them about is have they thought about what we can do to expand housing on the reservations to bring affordable, quality housing to Indian people throughout our country and certainly in North Dakota?" she said. She said they are somewhat taken aback because it's the first time they have considered it.
"Honestly, I think in very many ways in Washington, D.C., you're a forgotten population, except for the people who have been there with you struggling with these programs and these issues," Heitkamp said, added.
She said the next time she visits Fort Berthold she wants to meet with all of its housing specialists to talk about what is being done right now, what the tribal business council's ideas are and how they can be helped.
"Because people cannot live like this," Heitkamp said, adding, "It's wrong in not only the wealthiest country in the world, but it's wrong in the wealthiest state in that wealthy country and people should know about this so we're committed."
After the meeting, Heitkamp briefly met with Fort Berthold Housing Authority staff in New Town and asked them to put together a list of needs and said she'll return later this spring to meet with them again.
She said Head Start needs to be continued to help prepare children to be ready to learn.
A number of local law enforcement officers were at the community center. Heitkamp praised them for their terrific work during incredibly challenging times.
Heitkamp renewed her commitment to the military veterans. She said she heard a story a few days ago that just broke her heart about a young man who had left the Spirit Lake Reservation, served his country for 22 years and wanted to come home to take care of his mother and father. But he could not return to his community because he was homeless. There was no place for him to live.
"So where we talk all the time about North Dakota and the economic opportunities and the job opportunities, we know it's not spread equal," she said. "How do we begin that process of eliminating the impediments to entrepreneurship, how do we begin that process especially for our returning veterans to eliminate the problems of housing... That really is very much a priority for me," she said.
While on Fort Berthold, Heitkamp and Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, signed a proclamation declaring Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The proclamation said sexual assault and domestic violence is a serious and pervasive crime affecting 1.3 million women in the United States and for the year 2011-2012, an average of 240 women, children and men of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation received services as victims.
Heitkamp also attended a tribal Roads meeting at New Town, visited community members in both White Shield and Mandaree and also made a helicopter tour of oil and gas wells and also to the site for the new refinery near Makoti.