Former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat from North Dakota, visited the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community for the second time on April 14. Dorgan met with the SRPMIC Tribal Council briefly during their working session, where he was presented with a gift. He spoke about his plans to help improve the lives of Native Americans, starting with at-risk youth.
As a longtime member of the U.S. Congress and chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Sen. Dorgan retired in January after serving in Congress for 30 years. He has a track record of working to help tribal communities in North Dakota and across the country. While in the Senate, Dorgan worked to bring attention to the disparities existing in Indian Country. He successfully championed the effort to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act after it had languished for 18 years, wrote and ushered through the Tribal Law and Order Act, fought for increased funding for Indian Country, and much more.
Focus on Native American Youth
In 2010, he founded the Center for Native American Youth, a policy program of the Aspen Institute.
“I created the Center for Native American Youth because I believe our country has a responsibility to keep the promises we have made to the First Americans,” said Dorgan in 2010. “And we must start with the young people, many of whom are struggling to find opportunities to improve their lives.
“With this Center, I am determined to improve the lives of Native American children by focusing on education and health with special emphasis on teen suicide prevention,” Dorgan added. “We’ve made progress on Indian legislation in recent years, and I am proud of those achievements. But much more needs to be done. Our Center will work with tribal leaders and national Indian organizations to make a positive difference in the lives of Native American youth.”
Sen. Dorgan was in the Community as part of a series of youth summits and roundtable discussions he is holding across Indian Country. The goal is to bring together youth, tribal leaders, community partners and experts to discuss the challenges youth face daily and the best ways to respond to those challenges.
Meeting Students at Salt River
After visiting with Council, Dorgan headed to Salt River High School. Dr. Dale Frederick, superintendent of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community Schools, and Salt River High School Principal Mike McCarthy met with Dorgan and answered his questions about the school, including how it started, how it has grown and improved, and how many students have graduated from the school. Dorgan also asked about the dropout rate, which started out at 80 percent but has decreased to 35 percent over the past six years.
Dorgan toured the school’s classrooms, library and cafeteria, then met with 20 students from the ninth through 12th grade in a roundtable discussion about their challenges and successes. Dorgan began by asking the youth about their high school and how it felt to see the girl’s basketball team become the Arizona state champions.
He also asked if anyone was on Facebook. The teens were still pretty quiet, but then he asked if they knew the hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas. This got everyone’s attention as they all began to giggle, and he told them how he met will.i.am and how the musician is a close friend of his.
He asked the students what their plans were after high school, and to make the question more interesting he added, “If you had a magic wand, what would you want to be?” The teens responded with many ideas, including an NBA player, a cosmetologist, a pediatrician and a journalist. Dorgan told the youth those are all goals that they should stick to and not let anything stop them, even roadblocks they might face in the future. “You are in charge of your own destiny,” said Dorgan.
Dorgan asked if any of the teens ever had to deal with a friend or family member’s suicide, and what they would they do if they had to talk someone out of that. He explained that in Native American communities there is a very high suicide rate among teens. A couple of teens responded by saying if they were faced with that issue they would try their best to stop someone from committing suicide by telling them how they would be affected by the choice, by encouraging them not to hurt themselves, by giving them positive attention and by helping them look for help.
When asked what they do on Friday nights in the Community, many teens said there wasn’t enough to do. A few mentioned that sometimes there is a house party, but major decision-making comes into play regarding whether or not to attend.
Dorgan asked if there was a safe place that the teens can turn to in the Community, and asked what they would want in a facility that catered just to them. Even though there are the Boys & Girls Clubs located on the Community, the teens told Dorgan that those are mainly for younger youth and they would like to see something that is more directly geared toward them and their needs.
Also visiting Salt River along with Dorgan was Erin Bailey, director of the Center for Native American Youth, and Patty Talahongva, a board member. They also chatted with the students and asked questions to get a better idea of what youth would like to see in a Native American youth center project.
After the roundtable meeting was over, the teens asked Dorgan some questions of their own. They wanted to know about what his goal was for helping Indian youth and how he got involved with wanting to help Native Americans.