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Treaty board could enhance work with tribes

WAKPALA, S.D. - Regional Tribal treaty leaders at the Tetuwan Oceti Sakowin Treaty Council Conference discussed a diverse set of issues including how state governments approach tribal matters, how tribes approach agreements with other governments and how individuals may impact the tribal culture.

State Sen. Ron Volesky a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, was the keynote speaker on opening day, June 25, designated to honor the chiefs at the week-long event.

The Huron Democrat, a candidate for governor in 2002, vowed to create a panel that would study the impact of state laws on tribal communities. He said while the state has a tribal relations committee, more can be done to deal equitably with tribal issues on a state level.

"One of the things I would propose as governor of South Dakota is to introduce a treaty board. We would not only recognize the sovereignty of tribal governments, but we would also try to do something to make sure the documents are not only understood, but carried into effect."

Volesky, who serves on the state tribal relations committee, said it was started during the Gov. George Mickelson's administration, during reconciliation. Since then the committee has served as an open door to tribal leaders and tribal members looking for a change in how the state deals with tribal governments and issues that affect American Indian people in South Dakota. Many of those issues have been defined under treaties with the federal government, but often treaties are overlooked when legislation is under consideration.

"While it isn't all that people want it to be, it is important that we have that committee. When we have those meetings, I really encourage you to come and voice your opinion," he said.

Volesky said the committee will hold a series of meetings this summer across the state on some of the reservations to look at remedies for disparities in health care, long-term care, economic development and racial profiling. "We always have time for public testimony so anybody who wants to can talk about their experiences.

"One of the issues we want to talk about is health care, making sure the treaty obligations are carried out.

"One of the problems we have is the lack of long-term care and lack of nursing home facilities on our reservations. We're trying to work out a solution between the federal government, state government and some of the tribes to establish nursing home facilities," Volesky said.

He added he will again pursue a racial profiling bill. The state Legislature failed to pass such a measure earlier this year even though neighboring Nebraska did so during its last legislative session.

"I had a bill last session that would have required the attorney general's office to keep data regarding law enforcement stops and after a period of three years to see what is happening with racial profiling.

Tribal leaders approached Volesky about a driver's license being taken away as a penalty for a tribal member's failure to pay child support.

Volesky said people need to hold a license allowing them to go to work. "I think somebody needs to look at it to see if it is a fair situation particularly when a person needs their transportation to work to help pay back. How can they effectively pursue employment if they don't have driving privileges?"

Tribal leaders and tribal members must continue to put political pressure on congressmen to carry out the treaty obligations, Volesky said.

"It is kind of ironic that the very people who deny treaty obligations are the very people we have to go to try to get them to change their mind. We have to get more people to understand that treaty obligations are not being fulfilled.

"I can't understand why the state of South Dakota continues to deny the building of a nursing home on the reservations when those very patients that would be served by nursing homes are being placed off the reservation, many miles away, and the same subsidy, as far as Medicaid, is being made," Volesky said.

He said Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman John Steele had to ask the state of Nebraska for help after South Dakota failed to assist the tribe in its efforts.

"The state of Nebraska has been talking about helping to build a nursing home to help with the population. It would be great. What an embarrassment it would be to the state of South Dakota that it wasn't able to step up to the plate. I'm not in the position where we want to embarrass the state, but the bottom line is it isn't an unsolvable problem."

Volesky also was doing a little campaigning, hoping to garner tribal support, some of which may come from members of his own tribe.

SRST Councilman Jesse Taken Alive said many of the reservation residents are likely to back Volesky if for no other reason than to see an improved relationship between the state and the tribes. Taken Alive said North Dakota's governor sits on a similar tribal relations committee and routinely listens to tribal leaders concerning the state's impact on reservation communities.

Tribal members from throughout the region and Canada honored the chiefs of the past on opening day, a session held under a revival-style tent but cut short because of high temperatures. Thunderstorms hit the area on Tuesday.

Taken Alive said other issues such as the commercialization of tribal rites, water rights, land boundaries, environmental issues and blood quantum will be addressed in remaining sessions.