Elections 2012: Debating South Dakota’s Lone Voice in Congress

South Dakota’s lone U.S. Representative is an important office for Indian country. The state that once sent a Lakota man, Ben Reifel, to Congress.

Reifel once told me he was a Republican because he had to be. He was from South Dakota and he saw that as his only path to elective office. His resume would disqualify him from that party today: He was a bureaucrat, retiring as the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ area director before his election in 1960. He went on to serve five terms.

American Indians remain a key constituency in that state’s politics – even if Reifel remains the only Native American to serve in Congress. (When Reifel was in office South Dakota had two representatives, there is only one statewide member now.) There are nine reservations, significant urban populations in Rapid City and Sioux Falls, and the total population is just under nine percent of the state’s 814,000 residents.

The current Republican to represent South Dakota is Kristi Noem. She, too, says Native American issues are an important part of her job. “Upon arriving in Congress, I joined the Native American Caucus which aims to improve the government-to-government relationship between the tribes and the federal government,” she says on her web page. “I also introduced Tribal Sovereignty legislation to clarify that the National Labor Relations Board does not have jurisdiction over tribally owned businesses on reservation land. Some of South Dakota’s reservations have some of the highest unemployment rates throughout the state. We need to encourage business and innovation, rather than burden their economies with additional government red tape.”

But her Democratic challenger, Matt Varilek, says Noem pays little real attention to Indian issues, saying she missed 17 out of 22 meetings of the House subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. “We simply cannot accept that kind of performance from our one member of Congress,” Varilek said in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Noem told the newspaper that she had to pick from conflicting meetings, deciding which ones would be more effective for South Dakota.

Varilek also has an Indian Country tab of issues on his web page. “Ending the cycle of poverty in Indian country must be a top priority, along with working to ensure that the United States upholds its treaty and trust responsibilities to American Indian tribes. Matt will respect the sovereignty of tribes, and strive to be a partner in cooperative efforts to bring increased development, education, job creation, and infrastructure to our Indian communities.”

He says one way to improve reservation development is investing in tribal colleges and other educational facilities.

Varilek dismisses Noem’s reasoning for missing those Indian subcommittee meetings saying she also missed the meetings that were supposed to be the ones in conflict. “On the rare occasions when Noem did attend a subcommittee meeting, she often passed on opportunities to speak on behalf of South Dakota,” the Varilek campaign said. “On July 24, 2012, Indian Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) had to repeatedly call on Noem to get her attention because she was typing on her phone. Noem looked up from her phone and declined her chance to speak.”

However Noem released a statement from the chairman, Don Young, who defended her work on that subcommittee.

Noem has been a strident critic of the Affordable Care Act. She said last year, after meeting with tribal leadership, that it was “extremely unfortunate” that the health care reform law was intertwined with the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. “Because I think that it is quality legislation that should have stood on its own and passed on its own according to what would have benefited the tribes,” Noem said.

Noem was first elected two years ago. She defeated the then-incumbent Democrat, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin by only a two-point margin, 48 to 46 percent.

Early voting began September 21 in South Dakota.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.