In today’s American political climate, partisan issues are unfortunately becoming the norm in both federal and state elections. Yet South Dakota Representative Kevin Killer, D-Pine Ridge, is not seeing the needs of his district as a partisan issue or even a Native American issue. Instead, he sees them as “human” issues.
“The majority of this district comprises mostly Pine Ridge Reservation,” Killer, 33, said about South Dakota House District 27. “Naturally, Native issues should be always first and foremost regardless of political affiliation—whether you’re Democrat, Republican, Independent—because Native constituents make up the bulk of this community. ‘How is the standard of living on Pine Ridge?’ This is a bipartisan argument. This is a human argument. I think that’s first and foremost to any candidate in this area.”
Killer, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and of Kiowa descent, has co-represented District 27 for the past four years, originally winning in 2008 alongside Ed Iron Cloud III, D-Porcupine. With Iron Cloud not running for re-election, Killer is the sole Democratic incumbent facing two challengers—Independent Kathleen Ann and Republican Elizabeth May.
Over the past four years, Killer has served on both the S.D. House Education and Judiciary Committees. He told Indian Country Today Media Network that his greatest accomplishments have been working on energy issues; increasing funding for teachers on reservations; a bill to promote the acceptance of tribal IDs; the increase of college scholarships; and helping to create a state-tribal relations office. But to Killer, one of the biggest things he said he’s accomplished is to bring Democrats and Republicans to the table to discuss Native issues, helping mold the viewpoint from partisan issues to “human issues” or “issues of self-respect.”
“Being a member of a tribe, we have unique roles of being tri- or quad-citizens,” Killer said about the importance of a Native perspective as a legislator. “First and foremost, you have citizenship to your tribe, and then you have citizenship to the federal government. Then you have citizenship to your state government and citizenship to your county or local government. It’s a unique perspective a lot of us have to work with, think about and educate others on. This is where we’re coming from and why these issues affect us so much. I think that really helps open up a lot of eyes of other state legislators.”
In this election cycle, Killer’s platform focuses on education, economic vitality, and healthcare. In regards to education, one of Killer’s concerns is that in his district, at least half of the residents are under 18 years of age, especially on the Pine Ridge Reservation, with many of the other reservations in South Dakota having a similar population dynamic. Killer said that these youth “should have all the avenues guaranteed to making sure that they are successful. If they don’t succeed, that’s what is going to hurt our community and our state that much more.”
Although many throughout Indian Country use the term “economic development,” Killer said that he prefers “economic vitality” as his second campaign issue.
“I think economic vitality is a better word in seeing how we’re in the unique position of being a growing population for our district,” said Killer. “We have this big mass of young people. How can we take of that and turn it into something positive in terms of jobs and tribal resources? We can use that population to also build partnerships with some of the rural communities that are facing population decreases.”
In regards to healthcare, with many states refusing to cooperate with the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, Killer said that it was going to be interesting to see what happens when tribes who may support the Affordable Care Act come in conflict with states that do not support it.
The South Dakota legislature only meets three months out of each year. When not in session, Killer serves as the co-director of the Native Youth Leadership Alliance, a group dedicated to the capacity building of future Native leaders. One of these members, Anna Diaz, is currently running for the Shannon County (S.D.) District 2 commissioner position.
“The main thing is to go out and try,” Killer said to those Natives who have the desire to run for office. “You never know who or what you’re going to help affect. Whether you win or lose, you’re going to help lay that groundwork for another candidate—another candidate to be a success, another candidate to run or another candidate just to get out there and get their names out. I think that’s part of it—helping build a pipeline of leadership and making sure that they do it for the right reasons.”
Killer also spends his time as part of the Native American Caucus, a group of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiians who have been elected to both state and local offices. For Killer, learning how other elected Native leaders face challenges helps him in the times when he is in session.
“From a Native American state legislator’s perspective, every tribe has something that’s unique to their relationship with other sovereigns, whether it’s foreign or a state,” said Killer. “Our perspective is that we face similar issues. One thing that’s good about that, especially being a part of a Native American Caucus, is that we have the ability to learn from each other and also work with each other on finding solutions.”
If elected, Killer said he intends to run for a leadership position within the South Dakota House’s Democratic caucus, in particular the Minority Whip position. For Killer, this would be “ensuring that we always have a seat at that table, especially around Native issues at the state level,” he said.
“I think it’s important to retain the experience factor of having somebody who’s served in [the legislature] for four years, who has this perspective now of how we can build,” said Killer about his experience and about how he wants others in his district to see him. “‘This is who we can talk to. This is who will push in their committees. This is who will be there for us, regardless of what their political affiliation is.’”
For more on Kevin Killer, visit him at facebook.com/kevinkiller.