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Tribal leaders challenge congressional delegation

RAPID CITY, S.D. - The gathering of tribal officials around a basketball
tournament also brought in federal and state officials to address and
listen to tribal leaders' concerns.

Even though Senator-elect John Thune did not receive any substantial
support from Indian country in South Dakota, he did attend what was to be a
closed meeting with tribal leaders of the Great Plains. He and Gov. Mike
Rounds, who has attracted criticism for his handling of Indian affairs
after he extended an olive branch of reconciliation, also attended the
meeting.

The meeting that was to be closed to the public and the media was opened at
the request of some tribal leaders who said they wouldn't conduct business
without public and media scrutiny.

Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and president of
the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association told Rounds and Thune that
they are expected to stand up and fight for the tribes.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, with some 14,000 members, does not have a
hospital. Allocations for a hospital were approved, however, due to IHS
budget cuts, the hospital would be scaled down in size to a 10-bed facility
that will not be adequate to handle the needs of the reservation.

Frazier told the two Republicans that legislation in the works is attacking
the Lakota way of life and treaties. He said the $8 million for health care
on the reservation is about 40 percent of the actual need. The per-capita
funding is a $500 per person on Cheyenne River, he said.

Thune's response was that funding was the issue and that IHS was
chronically underfunded, but added that they were not easy problems to
solve. He said the people deserved a solution.

The meeting lasted for 90 minutes. Gov. Rounds said the tribal leaders were
welcome to discuss issues with him at his home. The tribal chairmen were
invited to the governor's home after he was inaugurated two years ago.

Rounds acknowledged that health care was a problem and that he was willing
to discuss it with tribal leaders. In his annual budget address, Rounds
said that Medicaid had become a problem for the state and that changes had
to be made in how the state administers the funds.

Across town at nearly the same time, more tribal officials were telling
Assistant Secretary Dave Anderson that Medicaid should be administered by
the tribes and not have to pass through the states.

South Dakota state legislators have voiced some ideas that would reduce
funding to some Medicaid recipients based on lifestyle choices including
smoking and obesity.

The majority of Medicaid recipients in the state are American Indians who
are poor and subject to relying on commodity food, which has a high fat
content. Medical experts claim that is one of the reasons for high diabetes
rates and obesity.

Thune said the tribal leaders need to find a common agenda and should
consult with each other in order for the congressional delegation to have
specific issues to address.

At another location the two sitting congressional people, Sen. Tim Johnson
and Rep. Stephanie Herseth met with tribal officials to discuss law
enforcement and other issues.

The two said housing, health care, economic development and education
always top the list of areas that receive attention while law enforcement
takes a back seat. As the Lakota Nation Invitational tournament unfolded
two days of discussion on law enforcement took place at the request of the
Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association.

The concern for many tribal officials in law enforcement on the
reservations was budget cuts that make their jobs more difficult.

Johnson said not to expect the tribal courts and law enforcement to get any
increases. He said the present allocation is better than a cut.

Herseth, who is currently on the House Resources Committee said there was a
need to identify priorities in a difficult budget environment.

Another problem facing law enforcement and justice centers is competitive
grants. Karie Azure-Elliot, Northern Plains Judicial Institute director,
said that funding was abysmal for tribal courts. One reason they need more
funding is that more people enter the court system. As an example she said
that American Indians were victims of crime at a rate more than twice that
of the non-Indian citizens and that American Indian women suffered from
domestic abuse more than three times the national average.

Lisa Cook, an associate judge on the Pine Ridge Reservation said her case
load was at more than 1,200 this past year. She has no bailiff, and a very
small staff.

"If we are going to do it right we need more funding," Cook told Johnson
and Herseth.

"I am staggered by your case load," Johnson said. "We need to fund people
with good pay. You are doing heroic work."

Rep. Herseth worked as a clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Charles
Kornmann. He has been critical of the mandatory sentencing guidelines
imposed by the federal system, and Herseth said she shared that sentiment.

"There significant issues of fairness and justice," she said.

The bottom line is there is not enough money to spread around to maintain a
tribal court and justice system that addresses the needs of all people.
Johnson and Herseth said they would stay on top of the funding mechanism
and try to bring in other congressional people from the surrounding states
to assist.

The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association covers four states. Tribal
officials said they would like to meet with elected officials from those
states at their meetings. Herseth said she would speak with her
counterparts on that issue.