Skip to main content

Indians of South Dakota, Let's Talk about Advantage

  • Author:
  • Updated:

Relatives: You have the national political base of the state of South
Dakota within your grasp. You have a truly historic opportunity just now --
in this political season and perhaps many others -- to advocate very
seriously for your national interests. Given a narrowly-divided electorate
you hold the balance of statewide elections in your hands.

This became even more clearly obvious last week when the American Indian
vote was recognized, even by the losing party, as the decisive block that
elected Democrat Stephanie Herseth to fill a seat in the House of
Representatives. The single South Dakota louse seat was vacated by former
Republican Gov. Bill Janklow, who was convicted of second degree
manslaughter earlier this year. Herseth beat out Republican Larry Diedrich.
Counties with large percentages of Indian voters overwhelmingly supported
Herseth, who won by a few thousand votes.

This somewhat historic and unique positioning for Indians can provide a
highly advantageous opportunity. This has been fully noted by South Dakota
politicians. Republicans there admitted that Indian votes decided the
Special Election. "If you take out the Indian reservation, we would have
won," Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., former chairman of the National Republican
Congressional Committee told the Associated Press. They noticed also in
2002, when a few hundred American Indian votes put Senator Tim Johnson over
the top. It happened in the late vote count, in western South Dakota,
prominently in the Pine Ridge Reservation, that Johnson jumped over his
opponent with a mad dash at the finish line.

Everyone is astounded in these results and what they can mean. For one
thing, once again, it showed the American Indian vote, at least in South
Dakota, is firmly in the Democratic basket. It showed the Republican Party,
at least in South Dakota, is out of the loop with Indians. The GOP's first
reaction after the Johnson victory did not help. In distinct contradiction
to good political instinct, which dictates gaining the sympathy of the
opposition, some GOP operatives opted for a smear campaign against Indian
voters. They blew up a few isolated incidents of skewed registration
procedures, with one accusation of registration fraud, and went national
with their accusations. To their discredit, publications such as National
Review and prominent Republican media personalities, such as Robert Novak,
took the "Indian vote fraud" line and lie to the national discourse. To
their credit, numerous Republican officials in South Dakota denounced the
whole notion of a "fraudulent" election for Tim Johnson, and fully
recognized the value and honesty of the Indian vote, but the damage had
already been inflicted.

Senior South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, a Democrat, has seized the lesson
of the moment and worked avidly in the past two years to let the Indian
leadership in South Dakota know that he is ready, willing and able to carry
Indian tribal concerns to proper and effective legislation and has opened
the doors to a strong current of funding for tribal programs of many
varieties. Sen. Daschle's approach is becoming increasingly sound, with
more frequent visits to tribal communities and deeper consultations with a
cross-section of tribal people from both the public and private sectors. Of
course, the same is mostly true for Senator Tim Johnson, who fully supports
Daschle's leadership as Senate Minority Leader in these initiatives.

Interestingly, since his close election victory Johnson has also focused
more attention on Indian priorities. The standard core issues continue to
reemerge: health care, education and economic development. In education,
the construction of new facilities for education has been a real sticking
point in the Great Plains and especially on the Crow Creek Reservation.

The Indian tribes of South Dakota would do well to forge consistent working
relations with the whole of their state's congressional delegation. The
Democrats, often tempted to simply throw money at problems, must be moved
quickly toward economic development initiatives that motivate substantial
free enterprise operations by appealing to and forging trade and commerce
ties among American Indian businesses. As any objective study of Indian
country economics reveals, reservation border towns benefit significantly
from cash flows generated by Indian enterprise. When it comes to business
development on tribal lands, what is good for Indian country is great for
the state of South Dakota. This is what makes recent stories of Indian
voters being harassed at the polls so perplexing and disturbing.

South Dakota tribal leadership will do well to hold serious discussions on
how to guide the depth of understanding and support necessary to make
substantial inroads against those most serious problems plaguing their
peoples. Serious, energetic political will, coupled with good economic
thinking that involves much community leadership, has great potential yet
at this time in history. South Dakota should partner with major tribes and
corporations to help rebuild the tribal economies into thriving Plains
communities. Indian leadership should also step up and think big in this
initiative. The Daschle congressional team needs to field an economic
initiative that looks toward new markets and that seeks to build new
relationships with stable and prosperous Indian governments and businesses
all across the country. A good scorecard must be kept, to measure progress
on major issues and initiatives.

Let us be very clear on this matter: the problems on South Dakota
reservations are solvable. They are longstanding problems but these are not
endemic, not ingrained forever. Land, resources, innovative and talented
and passionate leadership, Native and non-Native alike, all these
ingredients for success exist in South Dakota. Homestead by homestead,
tiospaye by tiospaye, community by community, problems can be addressed and
more thriving opportunities can emerge.

American Indian voters hold the key to political viability in South Dakota.
This is a great moment to press for tribal success.