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National Native American Heritage Month shines light on proud legacy

One of my greatest honors in public service has been working with the Great Sioux Nations. South Dakotans are fortunate to live in a state with a rich historical and cultural heritage.

Our country’s history and way of life have been shaped by many different people, but there is no denying that a great deal of what makes this country so unique is directly due to the influence of native people.

In South Dakota we celebrate Native American Day in October by paying tribute to the history, culture, and contributions of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people. I applaud President Bush for declaring November “National American Indian Heritage Month” as a way to celebrate and recognize the important roles of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives in the history of our nation as well as in society today.

Last month also saw the signing of the historic Code Talkers Recognition Act, which honors American Indians who used their native tribal language to send secret coded messages for strategic military operations during World War I and World War II. South Dakotans have long been aware of the vital importance of Sioux code talkers who relayed important messages that America’s enemies could not decipher and that is why I first introduced this bill in 2002 while serving in the United States House of Representatives. While this bill passed the House in June of 2002, it unfortunately was not taken up by the Senate. It is long overdue for all Americans to recognize this important contribution to our freedom. I am especially pleased that this bill honors one of South Dakota’s truest Akicita heroes, Clarence Wolf Guts of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the last surviving Lakota code talker from WW II.

I believe that National American Indian Heritage Month also gives our nation’s leaders an opportunity to closely examine the issues facing Indian country today and to find solutions to improve the quality of life for Native American’s both on and off the reservations. Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, but unfortunately the House of Representatives failed to consider this long overdue legislation. I am committed to seeing that the next Congress addresses the important issue of improving the quality of and access to health care for American Indians.

I will also be working next year to see that Congress provides funding for health care, law enforcement and water projects in Indian country as a result of my efforts this year to redirect $2 billion in foreign aid funding to critically important tribal needs here in the United States.

This month is a unique opportunity for all Americans to appreciate the importance of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives in our nation. South Dakotans are lucky to have the influence of the Great Sioux Nations as an integral part of our history and culture, and it is a legacy that we should never take for granted.

Sen. John Thune has represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate since 2005, following service in the House of Representatives from 1997-2003. In that time, Senator Thune has worked with tribal leaders on many issues relating to Indian country, including improving public safety, economic development, access to health care and water and road infrastructure projects.