KYLE, S.D. ? It sounded more like a listening session than a campaign swing on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Barb Johnson, wife of Senator Tim Johnson, D-S.D. met with businesswomen and elders on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She said she was very impressed with what some of the businesswomen were able to accomplish for the reservation.
The Senator is in what political observers nationwide are calling one of the most watched races in the country. Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., has challenged Johnson. National Republican leaders indicated they were very interested in this race.
Johnson spent more than half her time on Pine Ridge with the women and men of the business development community. She heard, among other suggestions, that the Small Business Administration should open a special desk for Indian country to provide technical assistance and help with gaining contracts.
"They are coming up with their own solutions. It is very encouraging to me to see what the Lakota Fund and the Chamber of Commerce are doing. It is encouraging that the women are taking leadership," Mrs. Johnson said.
"They are creating ideas to come up with their own solutions, that is what needs to make a community come alive," she said.
Much of what Johnson heard will be reported back to the senator. When she met with the elders at Kyle, she said the issue important to the women was health care, and to the men, return of part of the Badlands National Monument. The Badlands bombing range has been an issue with the elderly community for many years, since the federal government took it over.
Albert Janis said that his mother Ellen Janis worked on the bombing range and land exchange in the 1950s and helped a bill through Congress for compensation for the lost land. The land was used during World War II and the Korean War as a bomber training area.
Johnson assured the elders that the Senator was concerned about the Bush Administration's $500 million cut in the Indian Health Service Budget. She said he would work hard for the next few months to replace the cuts and if possible increase the expenditure.
Senator Johnson is on the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs and the Appropriations committee.Up for re-election this year, Johnson is facing a challenge from Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., who was encouraged to run by President Bush.
Six years ago Johnson defeated then Republican Senator Larry Pressler. Strategists for Johnson said Indian votes had given him the win.
Johnson has opened reelection offices on each of the nine reservations in South Dakota. He and Barb Johnson have spent time on the reservations and say that much more time will be spent with the American Indian population. In recent days, his Senate office has issued a flood of press releases on Indian issues.
Thune's campaign headquarters did not respond to questions about Indian country issues.
Barb Johnson was told that people of Pine Ridge could create an economy with help from the government. Because there are so few services and businesses other than government on the reservation, dollars that come by way of tourism or government payroll flow out to the border towns and do not support a reservation economy.
Mark St. Pierre, president of the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce argued against the fear of many border town businesses that they would not survive if the reservation businesses grew. "A vibrant economy on the reservation will help the border towns if we develop a cash economy," he said.
Johnson agreed with St. Pierre's assessment and said she supported the work done by the chamber and other groups on the reservation.
"It's exciting to hear what you are doing here," she said.
Tourism is one of South Dakota's largest industries and the reservations have been shunned from that market by the state's tourism department, the people meeting with Johnson said. They said that the state needs to help develop tourism on the reservations.
In the past, South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow, a Republican, has openly discouraged tourists from traveling to the reservations, because of what he claims are lack of jurisdiction and safety. He also said there were "panhandlers."
"Don't judge us by what's around our house," said Monica Drapeau. "I tell people that an abandoned car is a means of support. There are many used parts that can be sold. And that if there are cars around a house that person may be a shade tree mechanic."
"If people see a number of trailers around a house that means the family is generous, that's part of the fabric of our culture," she said.
The campaign between Thune and Johnson is also called the campaign between Bush and Senator Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the majority leader of the Senate. It is no secret that the President has targeted South Dakota as a must-win state to help regain a Republican majority in the Senate.
Tribal leaders are split in their support of Thune or Johnson and each tribal member has issues that they want addressed during the upcoming campaign. Many elders and business leaders that met with Johnson said they want to see more from the Senator and from Thune as well.