Thune: Deeper understanding of tribal issues comes from dialogue

One of the most important aspects of my job as a senator is to listen to the ideas of constituents and use their input to better represent their needs in Washington. I greatly value the opportunity to hear directly from those I represent, from receiving letters and phone calls from South Dakotans to meetings in my offices in Washington and South Dakota, as well as in communities. Throughout my time in the Senate, I have especially valued the discussions I have had with South Dakota’s tribal leaders and members on the issues facing our state’s tribes today.

This August I will host a roundtable meeting with elected representatives of each of South Dakota’s tribes, as I have done each year since being elected to the Senate. These meetings have always been straightforward discussions about important issues facing reservations and tribal members living outside of reservations. I am grateful for all I have learned through these meetings, and I am confident this year’s gathering will be beneficial for everybody.

As a result of discussions with tribal leaders and members in South Dakota, last year I successfully authored legislation creating the $2 billion Emergency Fund for Indian Safety and Health. This fund is authorized to spend $2 billion over five years to address public safety and health care concerns in Indian country as well as fund projects to provide clean drinking water. However, before the assistance reaches the reservations, Congress must appropriate money into the fund.

Under the legislation, the Interior, Justice and Health and Human Services Departments must develop specific plans for the allocation of the money. Once these agencies have a plan, it will be easier for Congress to appropriate the money. Unfortunately, the reports were due at the end of July and have yet to be completed. A bipartisan group of my Senate colleagues and I have written to these agencies personally requesting that they complete their plans as soon as possible.

A large part of the public safety crisis in Indian country stems from a drastic shortage of law enforcement officers. Some tribal areas in South Dakota that are larger than some states are severely lacking in law enforcement manpower. Currently, the maximum age at which a person can be hired as a federal law enforcement officer is 37. The minimum retirement age with full benefits for military personnel is 38. This means that federal agencies, including the BIA, cannot hire former military personnel as law enforcement officers.

Fortunately, the Defense Authorization Bill passed by the Senate last month changes this rule, and if it is signed into law, the BIA will be able to hire tribal as well as other military veterans as law enforcement officers. I have recently written to the secretary of the Interior asking him to prepare to implement this change as soon as possible once it becomes law.

Public safety is not the only concern in Indian country. Suicide is a tragedy in any community, but unfortunately, it is frighteningly prevalent in tribal communities. I am proud to support a new bipartisan bill that would make it easier for tribes to get grants for counseling programs geared toward suicide prevention. The bill draws key ideas from the Indian Health Care Improvement Act passed by the Senate last year, which unfortunately was not considered by the House of Representatives.

Representing South Dakota’s tribes is a great honor that I do not take lightly. I am always deeply thankful for the discussions I have had through the years with tribal leaders and members that I believe have helped influence legislation in a positive way. I look forward to continued opportunities to listen to South Dakota’s tribes and strengthen relationships in the years ahead.

John Thune is a U.S. Senator from South Dakota.