The Way Forward: Report of the Alyce Spotted Bear & Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children


Created by Congress through bipartisan legislation, the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children was charged with conducting a comprehensive study of the programs, grants, and supports available to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians from birth through age 24 and with making recommendations about how this overall system could be strengthened, improved, and where needed, transformed to better help Native children and youth thrive. (See Appendix A for a copy of the authorizing legislation.)

The Commission is named in honor of two passionate advocates for Native children and youth, Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff. Ms. Spotted Bear was a chairwoman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, a recognized leader in education, and a distinguished cultural historian. Mr. Soboleff was a religious leader for Alaska Native people, a noted Tlingit educator, and the first Alaska Native Chairman of the Alaska State Board of Education. (See Appendix B for more complete biographies.)

To fulfill its charge, the Commission examined the unique challenges that Native children and youth face and the range of programs designed to address those challenges. Following in the footsteps of Ms. Spotted Bear and Mr. Soboleff, it focused not only on improving the current system but also on highlighting and leveraging the strengths of Native communities. Thus, the Commission’s recommendations reflect two primary goals:

  • To develop sustainable systems that can deliver effective wraparound services to Native children, youth, and their families
  • To amplify the unique factors offered by Native cultures that promote resilience among Native children and youth


The 11-member Commission included experts in education, juvenile justice, child welfare, social services, and mental and physical health. (See Appendix B for Commissioner biographies.) It received additional guidance from a Native Advisory Committee consisting of representatives from geographically and culturally distinct Tribal communities. (See Appendix C for the list of Native Advisory Committee members.) To carry out its comprehensive study, the Commission held 10 regional hearings across the United States to hear from Indigenous leaders, Native community members, expert practitioners and scholars; hosted 25 virtual hearings on key topics; conducted 26 site visits; convened 25 official Commission meetings; and tasked various subsets of members to meet as subcommittees and working groups.1 (See Appendix for a list of the Commission’s meetings, hearings, and site visits and Appendix G for a list of individuals who provided testimony.) It also reviewed reports from previous commissions and advisory bodies, a substantial body of scholarly research, and numerous program evaluations and assessments. (See Appendix H for a complete list of references.)

The Commission was aware that its success would depend, in part, on creating an environment in which individuals with diverse viewpoints, experiences, and backgrounds could engage in open, inclusive, and mutually respectful dialogue. With that in mind, shortly after the full slate of Commissioners was appointed but before Congress appropriated funds, the chair secured private support to convene an initial, unofficial meeting in fall 2018, at which the Commission reviewed its charge and developed norms for participation. Once funds were appropriated and a process for financial administration was determined, the Commission held its first official in-person meeting in fall 2019, at which it ratified the norms, established an operating framework, created subcommittees, and specified meeting and hearing protocols. The latter included opening each meeting and hearing with prayer, opening and closing each hearing with locally appropriate ceremony, and reiterating its norms for participation before engaging in any Commission business.

In March 2020, the Commission’s first formal field hearing was cut short by the announcement of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. By halting in-person field hearings for nearly two years, this wholly unexpected development further slowed the Commission’s progress. By adding to the hardships already experienced by many Native children, youth, and families, the pandemic also further heightened the Commissioners’ sense of urgency and resolve. Likewise, inspirational stories of successful community based responses to pandemic-generated crises offered hope and underscored the significance and promise of the Commission’s work.

The Commission employed a deliberative, multistep process to progress from research to recommendations. In early 2022, Commissioners and several members of the Native Advisory Committee divided into four working groups, each with an assigned topic area, to propose, discuss, and refine recommendations. Over the next 18 months, the full Commission met regularly to consider slates of recommendations forwarded from the working groups. Each recommendation received robust discussion before a vote was taken on its disposition. The Commission rejected a few recommendations, returned some to the working groups for further refinement, and accepted others for inclusion in its report. Early on, the Commission determined that all of its decisions would follow majority rule. Nonetheless, all but four of 50 accepted recommendations passed unanimously. For clarity and ease of presentation, these were combined and condensed, resulting in the 29 Commission recommendations presented in this report. The final report also was approved by a majority of the Commission.


In 2020, there were approximately 9.7 million self-identified American Indians and Alaska Natives living in the United States, a total that includes individuals reporting one or more races on census forms.6 Approximately 38% were children and youth ages 0 through 24.7 Of these totals, 13% lived on an American Indian reservation, on off-reservation trust land, or in a Tribal statistical area.8 Nearly 70% lived in metropolitan areas.

Also in 2020, there were 680,442 self-identified Native Hawaiians living in the United States, a total that includes individuals reporting one or more races on census forms. Approximately 55% were children and youth ages 0 through 24. Of these totals, 47% lived on or near a Native Hawaiian home land or on or near American Indian or Alaska Native lands; 94% of Native Hawaiians living in Hawai’i lived on or near a Native Hawaiian home land.Nearly 73% lived in metropolitan areas.

While many American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children and youth are thriving—living in safe homes and in communities that support them, developing positive relationships with family and peers, pursuing healthy lifestyles and enjoying good health, and furthering their academic and cultural educations—others face challenging life circumstances. Figure 1 provides more detail on this mixed picture. Taken together, these outcomes stand as a call to action and are the backdrop against which the Commission makes its recommendations.


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