South Dakota's Republican senator discusses issues

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RAPID CITY, S.D. -- Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., defeated Sen. Tom Daschle in
2004 and has been in the Senate for a little more than a year.

Thune had a rocky start with tribal leaders who challenged him to respond
to their needs. The majority of voters in Indian country are Democrats, and
in the past few years a major "get out the vote" campaign has taken place
on the reservations and in the urban areas.

Republican Party candidates have in he past ignored campaigning on the
reservations, but in 2004, Thune recognized the power of the American
Indian vote and campaigned on every reservation in the state. Tribal
leaders have met with Thune, discussed issues and are now waiting results.

Indian Country Today had an opportunity to meet with Thune and talked about
some of the issues facing tribal leaders.

Thune referred to the standard litany of issues: health care, education and
public safety -- issues that he said the government can have an "impact on
the quality of life on the reservations."

"Those are issues I want to help attack. There are some steep challenges
that face our leadership on reservations and for the people on the
reservations," Thune said.

The annual budget from the administration is most always unfriendly toward
Indian country, but Thune said that is only a starting point and he is
confident that money will be put back in to fund essential programs.

"Congress has a lot to say about funding those priorities."

The recent national media attention to drug problems on the nation's
reservations caught Thune's attention. The Community Oriented Policing
Services program on the Pine Ridge Reservation is scheduled to end on March
31, with a loss of 58 police officers.

"Diminishing in any way the capability of law enforcement to deal with that
issue seems to be a pretty dangerous road to go down. Obviously, we want to
do everything we can to make sure they have the resources in place, the
personnel in place, the partnerships in place with other agencies at the
federal and state level to attack that problem."

Thune was asked if the drugs and violence associated with drugs were
getting out of hand.

"I hope not. It does appear we have to tighten up the reins and get
control. Part of the problem is the borders. Mexican drug lords get sources
outside the United States and there is now a lot of stuff coming in from
Canada. It's a border control issue. How do we secure the borders of the
reservations so it's not getting in the reservations? That does require a
more active partnership we've seen in the past with [the Drug Enforcement Agency], the FBI and the state Department of Criminal Investigation.

"We don't need another problem like that on the reservation. It leads to
other forms of violence; when you have addiction, you get the violence,
whether it comes to children in the form of child abuse or spousal abuse --
a lot are related. We need to nail this issue and make sure we are
committed to the necessary partnerships in working with the tribes and the
states in a way we never have done before."

Thune said making a difference in drug and other violence issues will take
money from the federal government.

"You can talk tough; you can pay lip service to it, but you have to follow
it with action. Talk is cheap, but it takes money to buy whiskey," Thune
said.

"We are going to back it up, and that means if the president in his budget
does not acknowledge or is not willing to make that a priority, Congress
will have to step in and do it."

CRITICISM OF EDUCATION PLAN

The Department of Interior created an educational reorganization plan that
was rejected by the Great Plains tribal leaders, but was submitted anyway.

Thune spoke to most of the tribal leaders and expressed much the same
criticism of the plan and the procedure.

"It seems to me what they have done, and I have not delved down in this
issue to do my own analysis of the budget, but what I'm told is this whole
thing will cost the government more money. They increase spending to become
more efficient, which makes no sense.

"They will be drawing people up the line to mid-level in the bureaucracy,
but doing that at an increase in cost, which to me is crazy."

The tribes in South Dakota will lose five line officers and gain two
mid-level officials in two locations in the state.

"I think the tribes were not appropriately consulted on this. It looked
like they had their minds made up; it was a one-way consultation. The
reaction to it is universal."

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

"One of the biggest deterrents or obstacles to economic development on
reservations is [the] lack of legal certainty. Each reservation has its own
laws and own court system, and what I hear people say from an economic
development standpoint [is that] we were down there and there was a dispute
in tribal or state court. Some people downplay that, but it is a bigger
issue than people realize.

"We can provide leadership to tribes to recognize that is an issue."

Wakpa Sica, a reconciliation center currently under construction, will
house a tribal supreme court. Thune said that court would be an obvious
location to resolve disputes.

"Tribes haven't bought into that. I realize they would have to sacrifice a
certain amount of sovereignty to do that, but that may be the price they
have to pay to get certainty and availability.

"Part of the problem is the remoteness of the reservations. Clearly I think
there are things that can be done. I've had people in my office that talk
about refineries, coal liquification, those types of things; and we have
all this wide open space. We can figure out a way to partner up with the
tribes. It is going to take a recognition on the part of the tribes that we
can't constantly be in competition. We have to figure out a way to work
together.

"You have nine different entities, all of who at some point see a rival
tribe or reservation or government as a competitor. I think what we have to
realize is that for Indian country to prosper, everybody has to figure out
how to raise all the boats at the same time and work together.

"That's hard to do. We all have our own provincial mindset, and sometimes I
think that is a detriment.

"You have to go to people who are willing to go in there [to reservations]
and put capital on the line; that's always an issue -- lack of access to
capital.

"It becomes an issue of working with the financial community and lenders
out there who are willing to finance business ventures on reservations. But
... the tribal governments need to be enablers in that, not looking for
ways to stop that sort of thing -- but what can we do and how can we
partner with [the] state and the federal government and private sector to
bring these things about, as opposed to sometimes saying, 'We want to
protect what we want and don't want to work with another government, for
whatever historic reasons that might be.'"

Infrastructure on many of the South Dakota reservations is either lacking
or almost nonexistent. Thune said the federal government has a
responsibility by way of the treaties to improve the roads and water
systems.

"But the tribes have to want, really want, to make this happen in a way
they are willing to come to the table."

Thune said the jobs will be created by companies that invest in the
reservations.

"They will invest because they see an opportunity to make a profit;
hopefully to make a difference, too. Finding that company is going to
require an extra-special effort, not just from the governor's office of
economic development, but also from the tribal leadership."

TRIBAL RELATIONSHIPS

Thune has two offices in South Dakota, one in the east and another in the
west. Each office has a staff member that is a tribal member.

"I spend a lot of time with tribal leaders in D.C. and in South Dakota.
Part of my experience and observation is, a lot of it is relationship-based
and you have to develop a trust. It involves relationship and until that
happens it's hard to move forward together. It takes time; it doesn't
happen overnight. Not one meeting; not one half-hour meeting in my office
in D.C.; that's developed over a period of time. I will continue to work
and labor over that. It's hard because it's time-consuming and again,
distance is an obstacle."

COMMITTEES AND POWER

As a freshman senator, Thune did not get appointed to the top committees
that could assist Indian country. His colleague, Sen. Tim Johnson, is on
the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the Appropriations Committee.
But that doesn't leave Thune out.

He said since he is a member of the majority party, he can get the
attention of any committee chair.

"The nice part about being in the Senate, even though I'm not on the
relevant committees, [is that] when it comes to appropriations we all put
in requests for appropriations.

"I've told tribes that come in, who ask for money for this or that, [that]
the best chance is to work with both of us [senators]. I bring my access to
leadership and whatever support from the administration on some of these
issues, which is not always there to be had; you get the benefit of us
leveraging our positions."