North Dakota Senator becomes powerful voice for Indiansby Bob Reha, Minnesota Public Radio
When Congress goes into session in January, the shift of power from Republicans to Democrats will be good for the upper Midwest. In the U.S. House, the Agriculture and Transportation committees will be chaired by Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar and Collin Peterson. North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan will chair the Indian Affairs Committee. Indian advocates say they're happy the three-term Democrat will take over the leadership position.
Moorhead, Minn. — Byron Dorgan has been in Congress for nearly 30 years. He spent 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives before winning a Senate seat in 1992.
Dorgan is popular with North Dakotans. When his name is on the ballot it's common for him to win 60 percent of the vote. His popularity extends to the five reservations in North Dakota.
David Gipp, president of the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, says Sen. Dorgan has been instrumental in getting federal money to keep the college open.
"His past work even though serving as a minority Senator, on both the Indian Committee and also the Interior Subcommittee on Appropriations has been very instrumental in saving United Tribes and its operations."
Gipp says for the past seven years funding for the college has been cut from the federal budget. Each year Dorgan has secured the money for the school, including $3.5 million last year.
Dorgan's work on behalf of tribes in North Dakota has gotten national attention. Jacqueline Johnson is the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.
Johnson says Dorgan is popular with Native Americans across the country.
"And they support him because he is a good champion on our issues," Johnson says. "He's very candid, he lets us know when he can do something and when he can't do something. He's realistic about the politics and legislative strategies, but he has compassion around our issues."
There is no shortage of issues to address in Indian country. Sen. Byron Dorgan has several priorities; education, housing and health care.
"What we know at this point according to the Indian Health Service, is about 35 to 40 percent of the Indian health care needs are at this point unmet and unserved and that's not acceptable, it should not be acceptable to anybody in this country."
Dorgan says he wants to find ways to help tribes deal with problems like teenage suicide, mental health issues, infant mortality and diabetes. Some people say the only way to do that is to make some changes to reservation hospitals.
Right now, those hospitals are run either by the Indian Health Services agency, or by the tribes themselves.
Jacqueline Johnson of the National Congress of American Indians says her group wants Congress to pass the Indian Health Care Bill. Johnson says the legislation would modernize the Indian Health Services Agency.
"You know this country allows for a lot of in-home care for our growing elderly population and our current legislation doesn't allow us to do that," Johnson says. "So this would allow us to provide those kind of things to our elderly. And it would allow us to try and attract more professionals in the field out to Indian Country."
Johnson says the biggest challenge in passing the legislation will be convincing the new members of Congress reform is needed. Sen. Dorgan says he believes lawmakers will be receptive to reforming the Indian Health Care system. He thinks the election results have presented an opportunity to build bi-partisan support for such a change.
"So I will just work with my colleagues here in the Congress to try and provide more focus on what hasn't been done to try and work with both sides here with both political aisles to try and put a program together," Peterson says.
Sen. Dorgan is looking forward to taking on the issues that face Indian Country. He's optimistic that progress will be made when Congress convenes in January.
- Morning Edition, 11/24/2006, 6:51 a.m.