As people across South Dakota celebrate Native American Day, we reflect on the important contributions of Native Americans to our state’s history and culture. The richness of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota traditions are a significant part of what makes South Dakota such a special place. I believe to truly honor this legacy, federal, state and tribal leaders must continue working together to find solutions for the challenges facing many tribal communities today.
One of the biggest challenges facing South Dakota’s tribes is the lack of public safety that exists in many communities. In most cases, a lack of resources prevents communities from retaining the number of law enforcement personnel necessary to provide basic public safety services. Fortunately, there are mechanisms that Congress can use to address the lack of funding in critical tribal law enforcement areas.
While reflection and celebration is important, real action is also necessary to combat the serious challenges facing our tribal communities today.
Last year, I included an amendment in a foreign assistance bill that created the Emergency Fund for Indian Safety and Health. This fund is authorized to spend $2 billion on public safety, health and water projects in Indian country between 2009 and 2013. However, Congress must pass legislation appropriating money into the fund. This year’s Interior Appropriations bill included increased funding for public safety programs and public safety infrastructure development in Indian country, but I believe South Dakota’s tribal communities would be better served if this money was put into the Emergency Fund for Indian Safety and Health so it could more directly address areas with the most pressing law enforcement shortages.
While the shortage of resources is a significant challenge facing tribal law enforcement, a lack of personnel is also detrimental to public safety. It is unreasonable to expect that very few officers will be able to adequately police reservations larger than some states. One reason for this shortage is that the maximum hiring age for federal law enforcement officers is 38. The minimum retirement age with full benefits for military personnel is 37 years. This means the BIA and other federal law enforcement agencies cannot hire retired military personnel as officers.
There are many Native American retired military veterans who would be well qualified to serve as BIA law enforcement officers. The Defense Authorization bill passed earlier this year by the Senate included an amendment that would allow the BIA to hire retired military personnel as law enforcement officers, and I sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urging him to develop a plan for implementing this provision as soon as it became law. Unfortunately, the provision was removed from the final Defense Authorization bill. Nevertheless, I am committed to making this simple policy change a reality and have included a similar provision in the Tribal Law and Order Act which was introduced in the Senate earlier this year.
Native American Day is an opportunity for all South Dakotans to reflect on the importance of tribal history and culture to our state. While reflection and celebration is important, real action is also necessary to combat the serious challenges facing our tribal communities today. I will continue working with tribal leaders to ensure their views are well represented in the U. S. Senate. All Americans deserve safe, healthy and prosperous communities, and we can work together to make it a reality for all South Dakotans.
John Thune is a U.S. Senator from South Dakota.