Skip to main content

Sen. Johnson Concerned for Tribes

Tribal success tied to national politics

WASHINGTON - Democratic Senator Tim Johnson, D-S.D., has a memory of what
Indian country did for his political career in 2002.

He wants the same outcome for the 2004 election with American Indian voters
coming to the front and showing they can participate in the process.

June 1 will be a test for the American Indian vote and for others in South
Dakota. The voters will choose a person to fill out the remainder of Bill
Janklow's term in Congress. Janklow resigned in January after a felony
conviction and jail sentence following a fatal traffic accident.

During a relaxed conversation, Sen. Johnson highlighted various issues
important to Indian country, especially in his home state of South Dakota
for which he showed concern as well as frustration.

Sen. Johnson said it was important to support for Stephanie Herseth in that
race on June 1. Her opponent is Republican Larry Diedrich and the race,
being watched nationally is very close, and top Republican leaders have and
will continue to travel to the state in support of their candidate.

But Indian country issues are at stake. "We need new leadership in the
White House that is sensitive to the needs of Indian people and we need a
member of the house, like Stephanie that will make the needs of Indian
country a high priority," Sen. Johnson said.

An example of how the administration is not responding to the needs of
Indian country is wrapped up in a mosquito-borne disease, West Nile Virus.
South Dakota ranked third in West Nile cases among people and the
reservations had many instances of the disease. On the Pine Ridge
Reservation 27 people were infected and three died.

Sen. Johnson said a Mosquito Abatement for Safety and Health or MASH act
passed, but the Bush administration "resisted funding. I hope they will get
MASH up and implemented."

The MASH act does not include tribes, and Sen. Johnson said he has
introduced legislation that would provide a technical fix and allow tribes
to apply for federal grants.

"Too often legislation passes in relation to municipalities and doesn't
take into account that we have tribes that should be dealt with on a
government-to-government basis and should never be forced to go with a hand
to the state outside their sovereignty."

The Oglala Sioux Tribe and the IHS have been active in the fight against
West Nile. On the Pine Ridge Reservation DEET has been distributed
throughout the reservation by the IHS, and the Oglala Heath Department has
made window and door screening available.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, which suffered the most from West Nile has
also implemented methods such as spraying and planting special briquettes
in standing water to kill the mosquito larvae to fight the disease. The
tribes have to find creative ways to finance the fight.

This spring the tribes have scrambled to not just abate the mosquito
growth, but to educate people about ways to protect themselves.

"Preventive spraying techniques are simply not enough. We must look at the
overall public health concerns, including a West Nile virus vaccine that
would provide an additional and aggressive preventive tool to protect our
citizens. We need more than DEET and spraying," Sen. Johnson said.

The mosquito problem has taken a front seat in the Great Plains for the
time being, but the standard fare of issues continues to reemerge; health
care, education and economic development.

"We are working on a range of things. It's still early in the fiscal '05
budget process. Next fiscal year is not until October 1. We are following
up on some success we had last year. We will work with the tribes in areas
where we can partner on specific projects," he said.

"We have to keep in mind the federal government trust responsibility. These
are not discretionary programs, they are obligated. IHS is funded in half,
schools are under funded and it goes on and on. It seems the federal
government needs to live up to honoring its treaty obligations and this
administration has not been helpful."

The construction of new facilities for education has been real sticking
point in the Great Plains and especially on the Crow Creek Reservation. The
state fire marshal issued a letter the suggested the buildings on Crow
Creek are unsafe for occupancy.

"We can urge Albuquerque and the BIA here to respond favorably to this
urgent need. There is a long list of schools, in South Dakota and around
the country, that need replacement. The condition at Crow Creek creates a
real danger to health and safety of the children, faculty and staff. We
will do all we can to accelerate replacement of the school.

"Bush never delivered an increase on school funding. He wasted the money on
tax cuts for the super rich and expenses abroad, such as Iraq and made it
much more difficult than it was."

Crow Creek schools have been in need of replacement for years. Sen. Johnson
said he escorted Kevin Gover, then head of the BIA around the Crow Creek
area, and it was urgent to replace the buildings, then. That was nearly
eight years ago.

The Highway bill is very important to rural America and to Indian country.
Bridges on many of the reservations need repair or replacement and roads
are dangerous.

"President Bush said he would veto over his inadequate proposal. This is
not just a state proposal, there is a mush larger increment for BIA road
programs. I have ear marked funds trying to secure money for reservation
roads. Some roads are a public safety menace."

The Bush administration nearly succeeded in stopping the Mni Wiconi water
project that will provide water for rural areas west of the Missouri River
and for three of the reservations. The project, lauded as the world's
largest, is right on the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation and
Johnson said, "We wouldn't let it die."

The Bush administration has also worked to cut funding for tribal colleges.
"They operate on amazingly little as it is. The tribal college system has
meant rays of hope in Indian country. It produces highly-skilled teachers
and managers and entrepreneurs. Education from early Head Start and all the
way through is very important."

Sen. Johnson more than once emphasized the importance of the house race in
South Dakota set for June 1. The fear is that since it is the only race on
the ballot at the primary election, it may deter people, especially in
Indian country, from going to the polls.

Indian country in South Dakota made history with the largest turnout ever
in 2002. The result put Sen. Johnson back in the Senate. His opponent,
former Rep. John Thune is running against Sen. Tom Daschle. Both parties
now consider Indian country voters important.

Tribal leaders are better received in Washington, D.C. than before and
their concerns are getting more attention.

In reference to the primary and upcoming November election: "Indian country
needs to demonstrate its new-found clout and demand for dignity," Sen.
Johnson said.