South Dakota Indian country is severely economically depressed. Basic
services guaranteed most other places are only sporadic and the people
suffer from being marginalized in remote prairie communities where the
economic potentials of America often seem to pass by. American Indians and
tribal governments in South Dakota need all the allies with clout that they
can get. If reservations like Pine Ridge and others in South Dakota are to
build economic infrastructures and create financial potentials for their
residents, strategic vision must coincide with significant political will
and support from powerful people.
We believe U.S. Senator Tom Daschle is one such ally and supporter for
Indian people. As Minority Speaker, the senior senator from South Dakota
enjoys a very high-ranking and standing in the most powerful congressional
body, where all appropriations must be approved. While no single ally is
100 percent behind every tribal issue, an ally that will actually be able
to secure substantial gains in areas of mutual agreement and interest -
this is worth something tangible and practical.
Just so far in 2004, Daschle has championed and channeled some $6 million
in funds to South Dakota tribal programs and projects. The senator is
speaking out consistently on important issues of health care, trust reform
and tribal schools. Daschle was also the senator who most prominently
exposed the lack of support for Indian Health care, pointing out a
breakthrough study on federal health care spending per capita, which found
that the United States spends $3,803 per year per federal prisoner, while
spending about half that amount per year, per Native American: $1,914. Per
capita health care spending for the U.S. general population is $5,065 per
year. The Bush administration cut nearly $3.5 billion from the IHS budget
while Daschle pledged to continue his efforts to improve Indian health care
and ensure adequate funding for IHS.
"This severe funding shortfall means Indians are routinely denied care that
most of us take for granted and, in many cases, call essential. In many
areas, treatment is deferred unless a patient's condition is life
threatening or he or she risks losing a limb. This literal 'life or limb'
requirement means Indians do not receive care until their condition has
deteriorated significantly, when their treatment involves increased risk
and significantly higher costs. Others receive no care at all. This is a
national disgrace that simply must end." Daschle led the fight that forced
the Republicans to reinstate some $282 million in IHS funding.
Strengthening tribal government is also a priority for the senator, who
secured $2 million for the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place in Fort Pierre,
which is designed to enhance understanding of Native American culture and
tradition as well as strengthen the Sioux tribal justice system and support
economic development. The center will house the new Sioux Nation Tribal
Supreme Court. The facility will also house a Historical Archive and
Display Center and the National Native American Mediation Training Center.
On trust reform, says the senator: "Our goal should be to re-focus on a
simple task - providing fundamental justice to Indian trust account
holders. Regrettably, the Administration seems more concerned about
minimizing its financial exposure than determining what account holders are
actually owed and making good on that obligation." When the Inter-Tribal
Bison Cooperative needed to support internships among the young, Daschle
quickly tapped nearly $100,000 for the program.
Daschle faces a strong opponent in Republican John Thune, who lost by a
very close margin in his senatorial bid against Senator Tim Johnson,
D-S.D., in 2000. As happened in the 2000 election, South Dakota reservation
voters are likely to hold the all-important "swing" vote for closely
contested campaigns. As reported by Indian Country Today's David Melmer,
the fight for control of the Senate where the margin is 51 Republicans to
48 Democrats, will be intense. President Bush traveled to South Dakota,
where he is highly popular, four times in 2002 and more recently Vice
President Dick Cheney fundraised in the state to support Thune, who appears
again handpicked by the administration to win the Senate seat for the
Republicans. The Republicans enjoy a nearly 4 to 1 margin in fundraising
over Democratic Party senatorial candidates.
Daschle's re-election is likely made more difficult with the entrance into
the race of newspaper publisher and columnist Tim Giago, Oglala Lakota, who
has officially announced his candidacy for the same Senate seat. As Melmer
reports, Giago pledges to "talk openly about issues like the Black Hills
Settlement and what he refers to as the state's Achilles heel - racism."
While seemingly obvious that an American Indian would be more likely to
have clearer sense of Indian issues than most non-Indians and the wider
dialogue is always welcome, we urge South Dakota Indian voters, to weigh
their vote very carefully this next round. Giago's Indian candidacy may
have some appeal, but it seems destined, if it plays well to Indian voters,
to serve as a spoiler that could help land the office for Republican John
Thune. Anyone can express politically sound opinions, but not everybody is
the senior Democratic senator in the U.S. Senate.
Since his election in 2000, largely attributed to the Indian swing vote,
South Dakota's other senator, Tim Johnson, has developed close and constant
ties to the reservation electorate. Senator Daschle, as noted, has been a
consistent ear and voice for Indian issues. It seems a great time for South
Dakota Indian voters to press both Democratic senators on all their
important issues, to set the stage for better progress in Congress.
Alliances of clout are extremely important in the political arena. Indian
country needs the best, most capable and highly placed allies it can get.