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Native American Day grows at S.D. Legislature

PIERRE, S.D. - The drumming and singing reverberated throughout the rotunda of the South Dakota State Capitol building just as the political impact has filtered into the state offices in the past year.

The seat of government in a state with a dubious reputation for race relations has slowly become a place with a friendly atmosphere and a welcoming feel, many people who attended Native American Day at the state legislature said.

One benefit was a meal of buffalo soup and fry bread with Wojapi, a traditional Lakota berry sauce. The meal was served and prepared by the students and leadership of the Pierre Indian Learning Center.

Native American Day at the capital grows in size each year. "This gives us a sense of pride and an opportunity to make our concerns known, this will make (American) Indian people true citizens," said Mary Ann Bear Heels McCowan, director of First Voices organization, organizer of the event. She added that the past two years were the first time since the administration of Gov. George Mickleson that American Indian people felt welcome.

The late Gov. Mickleson proclaimed the beginning of reconciliation at the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1990. Reconciliation has not been prominent until current Gov. Mike Rounds took office in January 2003.

"The state government is meant to benefit all the people," said State Representative Tom Van Norman. Van Norman, D-Eagle Butte, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is a tribal attorney and one of four tribal legislators.

"This is a good day. It's about you and about what we can do for you," Van Norman said.

Paul Valandra, D-Rosebud, Sicangu Lakota, and a state representative said the state has turned itself around and there is a "new day in this government."

"You can make sure the state government does what it should for you."

Gov. Mike Rounds, elected in 2002, has opened the doors to reconciliation with tribal governments and the people. The state-tribal relations interim committee has opened its meetings to testimony by many people on various topics including health care, prison reform, adoption of American Indian children, economic development and racial profiling.

Many of those issues have been addressed in past legislative sessions and a moratorium on nursing homes was lifted so the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe could begin construction of a retirement facility. The Oglala Sioux Tribe is waiting for its chance next.

This legislative session has other issues, bills on the Indian Child Welfare Act, racial profiling and related bills, and election reform. Legislators told people who attended Native American Day that they can have an impact on how these bills progress through the system.

"What we do here today will help children. It will make a better place for kids to live down the road," said Senator Michael LaPointe, R-Mission, Sicangu Lakota.

"You have an opportunity to let the legislators know what we (American Indians) are all about. You have an opportunity to let the new governor and the legislature know us and make changes," LaPointe said.

A major focus of the day was to include the many youths that attended from local schools and the Pierre Indian Learning Center. Speaker after speaker told the youths they were the future. Sandra White Hawk, Sicangu Lakota, put it succinctly when she said we talk about how sacred and important youth are, but we sometimes do not treat them that way.

Geri Locke, a seventh grade student from Pierre said the constant message that the youth are the future puts pressure on them.

"We feel we have to try to keep the culture alive. When we get older we will help rule and we must try harder in school and get an education. I feel happy that our relatives get together here," she said.

"We work hard for the children, on and off the reservation," said Rep. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge.

"Every day I am here is Native American day. I am here to represent the people and watch the bills that will affect the people on and off the reservations," Bradford said.

"You have an impact," said Bradford. He added that it would be nice to see people from the American Indian community at the capitol each day of the session.

The Lakota, Nakota and Dakota people of South Dakota are seen as dual citizens. Tribal members are directly impacted by federal law and by state law, and because of that leadership continues to bring the American Indian community into the state legislative process.

Madonna Thunder Hawk of the First Voices Organization said that it was important for people to get involved at the state level because a lot of money is filtered through the state to Indian country; such as TANF funds and child welfare decisions.

"We don't need a lot of money to make a difference, we just need strong Lakota heart. There are a lot of ears here that don't want to hear the message, but it's good you are here," Thunder Hawk said.

Jennifer Mellette the current 15-year-old Miss Standing Rock, knows that what she does today will make a difference in the future. Mellette said she planned to attend Harvard Law School. She spoke at a committee hearing and has also addressed the North Dakota state legislature. Arvol Looking Horse, 19th generation keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf pipe, said ceremonies and prayers are important to bring Mother Earth and all relations into the understanding in order to create peace.

"The state legislature should respect our homeland, the Black Hills and all our sacred sites," he said.