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S.D. tribal leaders ask state’s US senators for help

FORT PIERRE, S.D. – The federal government must fulfill its promises to provide adequate money for health care, economic development, law enforcement and other problems on American Indian reservations, leaders of South Dakota’s nine Sioux tribes told the state’s two U.S. senators Aug. 17.

Republican Sen. John Thune and Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson listened as the leaders of all nine tribes described a wide range of problems, most tied to the lack of jobs and the high poverty rates on reservations. Tribal leaders said reservations lack adequate housing, have trouble educating young people, and face increasing crime because of a shortage of law officers.

Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman Robert Cournoyer said tribal officials would prefer not to ask for federal financial help, but many problems are caused by inadequate funding for programs.

“We need somehow to spur economic development, economic enterprise,” Cournoyer told the senators. “These recessions don’t even touch us because we live in poverty all our lives.”

Johnson and Thune said they will work together to tackle the problems described by the tribal leaders.

Federal reports consistently list many of the South Dakota reservations as among the nation’s poorest counties. In some areas, as many as three-quarters of the adults have no jobs, officials have said.

“I don’t promise we’ll solve everything overnight, but the current situation is intolerable. It should not happen in the richest nation on Earth,” Johnson said at the end of the meeting.

Thune said an emergency fund approved by Congress will provide $400 million a year for five years to improve law enforcement, health care and water supplies on Indian reservations. That money can help improve the quality of life for Native Americans, he said.

“Part of it is just educating our colleagues in Congress about some of these issues,” Thune said.

Johnson defeated Thune in a heated Senate race in 2002, but Thune won South Dakota’s other Senate seat in 2004. They have since cooperated on many South Dakota issues.

The tribal leaders said the IHS, which provides medical care to Native Americans, is severely underfunded.

Oglala Sioux Tribal President Theresa Two Bulls said treaties signed more than a century ago obligated the federal government to provide health care and other services to the Sioux, but funding for many programs has dwindled.

“It’s time for a change. It’s time for the federal government to step up to the plate now,” Two Bulls said.

Crow Creek Tribal Chairman Brandon Sazue said his tribe is in serious financial trouble because the Internal Revenue Service is seeking to take money and more than 7,000 acres of land after the tribe failed to remit payroll taxes for a couple of years. That means the tribe cannot help people whose electricity is cut off when they are unable to pay utility bills, he said.

More money is needed for suicide prevention programs and housing, Sazue said.

“We’ve got homeless people all over the reservation,” he said.

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