RAPID CITY, S.D. ? During a recent field hearing for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Senators Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Tim Johnson D-S.D., shared their views on what it takes to get congress and the administration to listen to the needs of Indian country.
Inouye, chairman of the committee said he listened to the anger and frustration from the tribal leaders, much the same as he had when he first was seated on the committee 15 years ago. During a meeting with Indian Country Today, he announced legislation that could have a significant impact on Indian country.
"Over the years I have been reading letters and talking with tribal leaders and they have posed a problem, which is rather sad," Inouye said. "If an Indian man or woman gets arrested, especially if it's a federal charge, he goes to California. When that happens, rehabilitation is almost gone. How can they expect the family to visit the son or the daughter or the husband or the wife? That connection with the family is very essential if you are going to have proper rehabilitation."
He has proposed setting up regional incarceration or detention centers in Indian country; one in the southwest, one in the northwest, one in Oklahoma, one in the plains. The plan is to have those in detention close enough to the family.
Inouye said that if the committee and the tribal leaders approve the plan, "we will push it hard."
"They can maintain their cultural ties. For example one of the problems has been religion. You have a Catholic chaplain, a protestant chaplain, you've got a rabbi, now they have Muslims. But, since there is no 'Indian religion' you don't have an Indian chaplain. This will resolve that," he said. "All of these things can be addressed and implemented."
On the same theme, both Johnson said Inouye were helpful and instrumental in gaining funding for juvenile detention facilities in the Great Plains, where construction is now going on.
Senator Inouye said Washington runs on two things; money and votes.
When the government does not have a budget approved at the end of a fiscal year and money is spent for other projects like the war on terrorism, Indian issues take a back seat and the people are impacted first. How can this be alleviated?
"Up until recently most politicians look upon the so-called Native American vote as inconsequential; that's understandable from the practical politics involved," Inouye said. "About 15 years ago, when I became chairman, research showed that on average 85 percent of Indian country turned out to vote in tribal elections ... But when it came to other elections like governor and Congress, it was about five percent. And so a politician looks and that and says, 'I'm going to your reservation for 50 votes, it's a waste of time.' But if that reservation comes out with 800 votes, it becomes a matter of consequence.
"A good example is Alaska. They did it so well that over one-third of the cabinet members became natives. This can happen. If they turn out in full force here (in South Dakota) a voter turnout of 10 or 15 percent will make a world of a difference," Inouye said.
Johnson is in a tight race that could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate.
"I hope the voter registration and get-out-the vote effort will not only be of enormous benefit to me, obviously, but will have permanent consequences," Johnson said. "If the Native American vote turns out the way I think it could this year, it will rock South Dakota. Federal leaders of every stripe will have to come to tribal leaders and people in a spirit of respect and ask what are their needs, instead of ignoring them. I think the Native vote can be a strong power in South Dakota. Once it's proven it will sustain itself."
Enfranchisement is at the heart of the voter turnout in Indian country, more than just getting some people elected.
"South Dakota is an important area for Indian country," Inouye noted. "You've got the Black Hills, which are considered to be a spiritual center of Indian country. You've got the most publicized group of Native Americans residing here. These are the Indian people that they know. And so the turnout is massive and then you start finding Indians getting on cabinets and city councils, it's going to make a little mark."
Johnson knows the importance of the Indian vote. He campaigned hard on reservations in 1996, which has been widely viewed as how he defeated former Senator Larry Pressler, the only incumbent who lost in that election.
"The rest of the nation has either electoral power, muscle power or money," Inouye observed. "The case in Indian country is that there is not that much money so you need political muscle and it can be done. In Hawaii, they take the Native Hawaiians very seriously, because they come out in large numbers."
In order to get Congress to do anything for Indian country, members and their staffs must be convinced to pay attention and to learn about the problems and issues affecting Indian people.
"One of things you do, you take the friends the tribes have and position them in key places in the U.S. Senate," Johnson explained. "In my case I'm on both the Indian Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee. So it's not just one voice and one friend, it's a friend in a very powerful position. If you have a friend like Chairman Inouye, we need to develop more of these friends. It's true we will always have some Senators that don't have many Native Americans in there state and this won't be a central issue for them. So it's all the more important that the tribes not only develop friends, but that their friends secure positions of great clout."
"Because of our position on Appropriations and the Indian Affairs Committee, we can fend off the anti-Indian budget of the current Administration," he added.