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Al Franken, who took the oath of office as Minnesota’s new U.S. senator last month, was quickly in the national spotlight. He participated in the Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, which attracted massive press coverage. On July 30, Franken attended his first meeting of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which was a hearing on gang activity on Indian reservations.It will be interesting to see how Franken develops in the nation’s most elite lawmaking body.
I recently talked with Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. – who, like Franken, happens to be from St. Louis Park. Regarding the difficulty Minnesota’s junior senator faces in entering the Senate session in midstream (after waiting through a recount and legal challenge for his election to be certified), Ornstein said that the “trickiest part” for Franken is that he didn’t “get to go through an orientation. It’s not even like being thrown into the deep end – it’s like being thrown into the deep end in the middle of a tsunami.”
However, Ornstein was confident that Franken would eventually orient himself to the process.
“He is a policy wonk – he knows an enormous amount about these issues,” Ornstein commented. “He knows how to work with people; he’s going to have a first-rate staff.”
In his opening statement at the July 30 Indian Affairs hearing, Franken, who campaigned on Minnesota’s Indian reservations last year, noted that “it is truly a special honor to serve on the same committee that my good friend and predecessor Paul Wellstone served on.”
Franken continued: “When I learned that I was to become a member of this committee, I noticed something about its make-up. Interestingly, I represent the most eastern state. The overwhelming majority of the 13 states represented are distinctly western.”
“Minnesota is unique. In some ways we are a western state; up north we have strong rural tribal communities neighboring endless miles of public lands. But at the same time, with our dense urban populations, we are also eastern. In fact Minneapolis has one of the largest urban Indian populations of any American city,” said Franken.
Franken also mentioned the “heart-wrenching tragedy” of the 2005 mass murder at Red Lake Senior High School, and problems posed by the “trafficking of drugs and the trafficking of young Native women between urban areas and reservation land.”The special Senate committee has been working on reform of the Indian health care system, public safety issues, and the confirmation of President Obama’s nominees for key posts, including Larry Echo Hawk (Pawnee), the Interior Department’s new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.
Franken likely would have been absorbed by the Indian Affairs field hearing on law enforcement in Indian country, which took place July 1 at Fort Yates, North Dakota. Among those testifying was Ron His Horse Is Thunder, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who described his tribe’s experience with Operation Dakota Peacekeepers, “the emergency response surge that brought 37 Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) public safety officers from other reservations to Standing Rock.”
The tribal chairman noted that the policing surge initially had some beneficial results, but has faltered of late, in its failure to create ìa holistic programî to address public safety needs at Standing Rock.
“Nothing demonstrates this more drastically than the recent suicides at Standing Rock,” said His Horse Is Thunder. “Since January of this year, we have had 9 suicides and 50 attempted suicides. Some may think it inappropriate to discuss suicide in the context of public safety. But for me suicide is not only a tragedy robbing us of our future, it is the miner’s canary – foretelling what lies ahead for us as a community and a nation, if we do not act to address our public safety needs in Indian country.”
The suicide rate at Standing Rock is 1,000 times the national average for Native Americans, according to the chairman’s testimony. His Horse Is Thunder said that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has designated the reservation as an “official suicide cluster. Many of those who have taken their lives are children – some as young as 10 years old. Our executive director returned from a 14-year-old boy’s funeral, and she said it was surreal because there were so many children and balloons there.”
This is alarming information, and Sen. Franken, and his colleagues on the Indian Affairs committee, along with government leaders and professionals in the Indian community, must quickly address this tragedy that is decimating the young generation at Standing Rock.