In South Dakota: a new governor, a new era

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PIERRE, S.D. - "Let's start out by just by visiting and learning," newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Michael Rounds said in an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today as tribal leaders gathered at the American Indian day at the legislature on Jan. 21

"I don't think it would be right for me to tell people that I know what to do to fix problems." Rounds said. "Until I get a chance to sit down and talk with representatives from the tribes, I haven't heard from their point of view what the problems are and what the possible solutions might be.

"For me to stand up and talk about, I know how to fix things, is on the wrong track. Let's start out by just by visiting and learning, and then let's find those areas where we can find the most agreement and take small steps to get a plan that we feel good about.

"I understand the process of identifying successes and sometimes you start out with the easiest things to do and then you move into the more difficult ones as you gain confidence in each other,"

Rounds said he has invited tribal leaders to dinner at his home in order to chat.

Tribal leaders have responded positively to his invitation with a guarded optimism for a new era in South Dakota.

Rounds said he would deal with each tribe as a separate entity and not deal with American Indians as a collective group. He added that there are two levels, individuals from urban areas and those from reservations and tribal governments.

"I also want to recognize there is a difference between race relations and tribal relations," he said. "Tribal relations in many cases are on a government-to-government basis. That's different than the very basic race relation issues that we should all agree on, and that is respect for each other regardless of race."

Other governors or political leaders in the state have tried to alleviate tensions between non-Indian and American Indians. Gov. George Mickelson, who served from 1988 until his death in 1993, initiated a time of reconciliation that has settled virtually nothing. Gov. Rounds was asked how he expected to have any more influence.

"As a leader I have the ability to shape public opinion," he replied. "I also have the ability to lead it and tell other people there is nothing wrong with trying to find areas of consensus. There is nothing wrong with taking the first step. There is nothing wrong with taking a second look at positions we have all taken or found ourselves in; so I don't know [what] it has to take to find success, but I'll know it when I see it, I'll feel it and so will other people."

He gave as an example the Governor's conference on Tourism during the first week of the state legislature. In the past, Indian people have not been invited to attend or participate.

"One of the first acts that I did in my executive reorganization was to place the tribal relations office in the Department of Tourism and State Development," Rounds said. "I did it for a reason. I think there is a huge opportunity to make an impact once we got an understanding how to do it with the tribes.

"There are some things I can see and I understand why we've had some difficulty getting it done, but I don't want to talk about it here; I want to talk about it with the tribes first. I don't think it's right to talk about it until I visit with them. But I see opportunities here, and they see opportunities as well."

Rounds said when the tribes start to trust him more and he in turn can trust them some areas like tourism and race relations can be resolved.

"I intend to visit the tribes. I intend to do direct contact with Native American people on issues they care about. If I can find opportunities to visit communities within Indian country I'm going to do it."

One of the most contentious issues is incarceration. In South Dakota, American Indians are imprisoned at a higher percentage per-capita than other racial groups. The American Indian population is 8.3 percent of the state.

Rounds said he understands that American Indian family ties are very strong. He said his own family is strong. He is one of 11 children and he said his father instilled the family ties into him.

"When we talk about a Native American incarcerated away from family I think it has a real impact on our ability to rehabilitate that person, but I'm not an expert. This is a gut feeling. I want to explore what happens when we get them closer to the family setting. I don't know how to do it, but I'm not afraid to talk about it.

"I am open to ideas and what better way to do it than start out with that attitude, so I am going to do my best to keep open.

"I don't know that I can fix lots of things, but I can try. I would sure feel better to have said I tried and it didn't work than not to try."