On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

North Dakota Senator becomes powerful voice for Indians

Share story

No nukes here
A sign identifies the border area of the Goshute Indian Reservation (Indian name is spelled as 'Gosiute') in Utah. There is no shortage of issues to address in Indian country. Sen. Byron Dorgan has several priorities; education, housing and health care.
Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

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
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.
Photo courtesy United Tribes Technical College

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.

Jacqueline Johnson
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.
Photo courtesy National Congress of American Indians

"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.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
There is no shortage of issues to address in Indian country according to Sen. Byron Dorgan. His priorities for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee include education, housing and health care.
Photo courtesy Sen. Byron Dorgan

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.