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Crow Creek's new tribal chairwoman faces challenges

FORT THOMPSON, S.D. - Crow Creek Sioux Chairwoman Roxanne Sazue faces challenges in rebuilding troubled finances and restoring confidence in tribal government after the previous administration left offices unattended and allowed resources to go awry.

Sazue expects much of her term will be devoted to the daunting task of turning things around on a financial level. The 43-year-old chairwoman looks at the effort in running tribal programs in the much the same way corporate executive officers look at running a business.

"I believe a good financial system is the backbone of a good business," she said.

In addressing the financial problems of the small Sioux tribe on the eastern banks of the Missouri River, Sazue looked to a Certified Public Accountant for a review of financial records to assist the tribe in getting things back in order - while sorting through millions of dollars in transactions.

"We're a high-risk tribe. All of our 638 contracts are high risk," she said.

What that means for the tribe is difficulty obtaining funds for improved programs and getting the federal government to extend money for the contracts.

Crow Creek will more than likely face extremely high interest rates should it need a loan for any capital projects, she said. The impaired financial picture means the tribe could face years of hefty interest before a penny goes toward the principal.

"We will have to have a clean record for three years in order to get off that high-risk status," Sazue said.

"It is really stressful because our community and our programs are going to suffer because of overexpenditures."

Sazue said one of the more pressing issues is trying to replace substandard school buildings condemned several years ago. The problem is much more severe today because the tribe's need is far lower on a BIA priority list than just a few years ago, she said.

Interim school Superintendent Scott Raue said the BIA, which made a commitment to assist, won't help the tribe with the middle school because officials see it as a loss.

Sazue, the mother of four between 11 and 20, has made the issue a priority because she said she understands how important the resource of education is to her community.

"One thing I want our community to understand is that we're in this together. We're basically working in condemned buildings."

Other tribal buildings have been condemned including those housing an alcohol program and the tribe's ambulance service, she said.

"It's scary when we really want to stress education for our children and we're sending them to school in a health hazard."

Sazue has begun lobbying the South Dakota congressional delegation, looking for help to replace the failing structures. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., recently toured the school buildings looking at an assortment of physical problems. Sazue arranged a meeting with U.S. Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., to discuss what can be done about moving the tribe higher on the replacement priority list.

If a project is funded, the school will more than likely be built on a new site two miles north of the present school, she said.

So far congressmen have responded well by taking the time to visit and tour the facilities, Sazue said. "I believe they are listening, but I guess only time will tell."

"I'm not going to give up. I'll write a letter every week."

Another challenge includes trying to relieve a short-handed and an overworked ambulance crew. The eight-person crew, which operates the service seven days a week, 24 hours a day, has to ask for assistance from Lower Brule, the neighboring tribe across the river, and Chamberlain when it is stretched to the limit, she said.

Often tribal members without insurance face enormous bills if the ambulance service isn't available when it is needed. While Medicare or Medicaid might pick up the tab for the ambulance run, young, adult tribal members not covered by Medicaid or an insurance plan receive a bill when Chamberlain's ambulance service has to respond.

"We haven't had enough money on all the reservations for our ambulances. We're going to have to really come up with the dollars for it."

Sazue, who grew up grew up in Pierre and attended high school in Stephan, isn't a stranger to political office. She served as tribal vice chairwoman in 1987 and held a council seat from 1990 to 1991. When she isn't involved in tribal government, she often works in youth programs.

She worked as the coordinator at the Red Earth Lodge group home for adolescents. She also worked as aide at the tribal school district, a job, she said was very rewarding.

Sazue doesn't consider herself a politician, but more of agent for change in helping her tribe further its development.

She ran for chairman at the urging of a younger sister, who died in February. She said she draws much inspiration from her sister as she approaches the painful and difficult task of sorting through the tribes troubled financial condition.

"I just felt like we needed to start running this place like a business, having our employees be accountable, come to work and have these offices open. It was bad. "The leaders weren't here and the doors were often closed. It made it pretty hard to do business."

Sazue said, "People became tired of their leadership not listening to them." Tribal members grew tired of meetings essentially conducted in private if they were conducted at all, she said. Often when meetings took place, they were moved to different locations - even off the reservation - making it difficult for tribal members to attend. Tribal members finally became so frustrated they looked for new leadership.

"When I came aboard in May everything had pretty much been at a stand still. There was five months of no business being done," she said.

As a part of her attempt to restore tribal members' faith in their elected officials, the tribe began publishing a newsletter to present a clearer idea of what is taking place.

"I would say ... the high unemployment and lack of housing has caused stress and hard feelings among tribal members," she said.

Many Crow Creek families are on a lengthy waiting list for housing. As they wait, they are often forced to live with relatives until housing becomes available.

"There is dire need is apartment complexes for single parents with one or two children and married couples with one or two children," she said.

Sazue has attempted to repair the tribe's relationship with Gov. William Janklow, no small task since the relationship between the governor and tribal governments has been strained, she said. The governor has committed a dozen 1,200-square-foot homes to assist with housing.

As for economic development, Sazue said the tribe is waiting to see what a newly constructed motel will bring to the table. The Lode Star Motel held its grand opening a couple of months ago in the peak period for tourism.