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South Dakota legislators hear from Indian country

PIERRE, S.D. -- American Indians in South Dakota are still second-class
citizens -- and no longer comfortable with that status.

Interaction between the tribes and state government has increased, and each
year a special day is celebrated to honor the commitment to improve
relations between lawmakers and the state's nine reservations.

For the past six years, the state Capitol has been home to Native American
Day -- a ceremony that has opened new avenues of communication with state
legislators and presented them with opportunities to introduce legislation
that could improve race relations as well as educational and economic
development opportunities. But many such attempts have been defeated or
scrapped.

The state's four American Indian legislators attempt to submit legislation
that involves education, child welfare, prison reform, racial profiling and
health. Such bills frequently either meet a stone wall in committee or on
the floor of either house. For example, it took four legislative sessions
to pass a watered-down bill on racial profiling that stated law enforcement
officers couldn't stop vehicles with dangling objects in the front window
as a primary offense.

Tom Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge
reservation, told the crowd at this year's Jan. 17 ceremony that South
Dakota benefits from the American Indian population but does not return the
favor.

"We are basically second-class citizens. We are the poorest of the poor
[and] have some of the poorest counties in the nation; we have some of the
highest employment rates in the country -- 40 to 80 percent. We have [a]
high incidence of drug and alcoholism, high incidence of elderly and child
abuse," Shortbull said.

"Are there any special programs given to Indian people? No. We are still
second-class citizens of this state. The attitude of state government is
that it is a federal problem."

Shortbull said he has been involved in state government, as a state senator
for six years and as an observer for more than 20 years, but he has not
seen any significant piece of legislation passed by the state Legislature
that would benefit American Indian people.

"We do business off the reservation, putting into [the] coffers of state
government hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars; and does
that money come back to Indian people? No," Shortbull said.

Gov. Mike Rounds made a short appearance. His comments were short and
familiar.

"Sometimes change is slow in coming, but there is a lot of good will in the
state. In the long term, everything in the state will be better as we learn
more about one another. And when it comes to culture, our children should
recognize differences in culture -- something that should be cherished, and
something we should celebrate."

As a typical honoring gesture, the governor was presented with a star
quilt.

Some progress has been recognized, as many tribal leaders and American
Indian legislators praised the Republican governor for a progressive
attitude.

Rep. Paul Valandra, D-Rosebud, said that even with some change in attitude
it is still "tough to get things done. We do see the light at the end of
the tunnel."

One area that he said was disturbing has been the Republican-controlled
Legislature's strong get-tough-on-crime attitude, which has resulted in
changes to statutes that have raised the penalty level and created a larger
prison population.

Valandra gave as an example the fact that previous attempts to enact
changes in felony statutes were defeated. He said an attempt this year to
make counties more responsible for low-level felonies may result in change.

Bills to support tribal college tuition for non-eligible students will be
introduced. That measure has been approved in the past, with funds
appropriated but not distributed. Also, a bill requiring that American
Indian history be taught in the state's public schools will also be
submitted. The two bills will mirror two that were passed in Montana last
year.

Michael Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, said he has
worked with the state government for many years and in that 34 years the
issues are still the same. "I don't understand why they can't get dealt
with."

Jandreau invited people to "come over to our side a little bit and
understand how many activities impede our progress."

"Our relationship with state government is not trying to make anyone do
what we want them to do, but allow us to do what we want to do.

"Our tribes are geared up to move ahead and develop their own character and
to provide a lifestyle for our people on the reservation that does not beg
for constant interjection of federal or state money. We have pride and we
need to be allowed to accomplish what we can," Jandreau said.

The annual Native American Day gathering takes place in the rotunda of the
nearly century-old Capitol. In that length of time, the issues between the
state and the tribes have not changed.

The first American Indian woman to serve in the Legislature, Theresa Two
Bulls, Oglala Lakota, is serving her second year as a state senator. She
said the first year was an eye-opener for her, but she said she realized
that the tribes and the state can work together and develop partnerships.

"We need to put the bad thoughts and bad ideas aside and know that every
issue affects all of us. We can show the rest of the United States that we
are working together," Two Bulls said.

The equality and prosperity that were promised more than 100 years ago has
never been realized, Shortbull said.

Historically, when the treaties were signed in 1851 and 1868 they were
referred to as peace treaties because the Powder River wars were not going
well for the United States. When the treaties were signed, Shortbull said,
the American Indian leaders were promised they would be equal to the
non-Indian and allowed to prosper the same.

"We have not achieved full status," Shortbull said.

In past Native American Days, legislators, lobbyists and state employees
passed through and over the area and stopped to listen. This year, a
reduced crowd of participants were treated to constant movement, talking
and disruption.

What draws much attention is the drum group. This year, drum group Wakpa
Waste and the honor guard came from Cheyenne River. The group is led by
Rep. Tom Van Norman, attorney for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and noted
legislative leader in the South Dakota House.

Van Norman said there has been some success in the Legislature because
there have been people who stood up and spoke the truth.

The Legislature will meet for 35 days this session. Some bills that have
been introduced and others ready for introduction may impact Indian
country. An all-out effort again this year is to get more American Indians
registered to vote and to the polls. Since the election cycle of 2002, the
voting population on the reservations and among urban American Indians has
found a voice and been empowered by the results of its vote.

The state has taken a different look at issues, and candidates campaign in
Indian country where they didn't before.

The visit to the state Capitol each year is another testament to the
determination of all tribes to change state-tribal relations for the
better.