Special to Indian Country Today
Serving 22 years in the U.S. Army has had a profound impact on the life of Remi Bald Eagle, Mnicoujou Lakota of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
As a combat engineer and paratrooper, he served in Iraq and South Korea. But it was during the Afghanistan war that he had an epiphany of sorts.
“During leader engagements we’d go to their villages and talk to tribal elders,” Bald Eagle said by phone from his office at the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal headquarters in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.
“We would explain why we were there and how we could be beneficial to them.
“I felt the irony of talking to tribal elders who were speaking up and defending their families and land, and I felt like we needed that at home. Why am I doing that for the U.S. when I need to be at home talking with the United States?”
Bald Eagle, 46, is following through on those emotions by running for a six-year seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission as a Democrat.
Although a statewide office, for Bald Eagle it has implicit tribal implications as well. The three-member commission is the regulatory authority of utilities operating in the state and sets rates, and issues or rejects permits for pipelines, natural gas lines, wind farms and electrical grids. A commission seat is up for election every two years.
“I think it’s vital for us (Native Americans) to be involved in something like this because no one cares for or is more impacted by these rulings,” Bald Eagle said. “It’s only right for us to be the voice of reason for how energy is to be used in the future.”
Bald Eagle, who is the intergovernmental affairs coordinator for the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, is facing incumbent Republican Gary Hanson, 70, and Libertarian Devin Saxon, 31.
Hanson is seeking his fourth term on the commission, having served 18 years in a row since 2002.
Of course no one is more aware of the implications of pipelines than Bald Eagle, who is a staunch opponent of the proposed Keystone XL Canadian pipeline, which if approved would carry crude tar sands oil across Cheyenne River Sioux land enroute to Nebraska.
“I oppose any pipeline transporting fossil fuels or hazardous materials that may harm the environment,” Bald Eagle said.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden has said he’d revoke the permit for the pipeline and kill the project.
Republican President Donald Trump is in favor of the pipeline, having approved it in 2017.
Much of the work on the pipeline is stalled after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July against a Trump administration request that it continue after a federal judge in Montana blocked it.
“The tribe plans on participating in that process,” Bald Eagle said. “So far they (U.S. government) have used an improper methodology that doesn’t take into account all the (environmental) effects.”
Hanson told South Dakota Public Broadcasting Radio on Oct. 1 that as a public utilities commissioner, he previously voted in favor of the Keystone XL project based on evidence presented to the commission. He also said he was one of the few people in any state to vote against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“We’re not legislators,” Hanson said. “We’re quasi-judicial and look at everything on a nonpolitical basis."
Saxon is on record as opposing the Keystone XL project.
Bald Eagle never imagined himself in this spot when he first joined the Army. But when he returned home from Afghanistan in 2014 he was working in the business office at a local high school and was asked to attend a tribal council meeting.
Impressed with his background and credentials — Bald Eagle also has earned an associate of applied science in pre-law from Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas — an at-large chairman asked him to serve in his cabinet, Bald Eagle said.
From there, a political career took off. State leaders took notice after Bald Eagle was picked as a delegate for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for the South Dakota state convention.
He was slated to attend the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee as a Sanders delegate before it was canceled due to the coronavirus.
Soon after, state Democratic leaders approached him with the idea of running for the Public Utilities Commission.
“I had no aspirations of being a politician until people asked me to,” Bald Eagle said. “My father (David Bald Eagle, a traditional leader) always said when people ask you, you don’t refuse them. As a warrior and a member of the tribe.”
Bald Eagle’s wife, Alaina, is a journalist who until recently was editor of the West River Eagle, a weekly newspaper covering the reservation and area towns. She’s taken a leave to be Bald Eagle’s campaign manager.
A daughter, Hope, 13, lives with them, and the couple have three adult children: daughter Demi, 26; son Remi, 25; and daughter Destiny, 24.
The family enjoys fishing and kayaking, tending to their horses and chickens, and caring for their house cats and adopted “reservation” dogs, of which there are four.
Bald Eagle thinks he has a chance Nov. 3, although South Dakota trends Republican.
“It’s a funny thing.” Bald Eagle said. “South Dakota has traditionally voted red, but it’s a simple fact that Democrats and independents outnumber Republicans, and there’s a relatively active Libertarian set.
“People feeling disenfranchised (and) voting Democrat or Libertarian would change the dynamic. It’s a matter of which horse in the herd are you going to jump on. The only thing is, I hope I don’t get trampled.”
Eddie Chuculate, Creek/Cherokee, is a writer based in Minneapolis.
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