Stephen Groves
Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. — The head of the Standing Rock Sioux last week told South Dakota legislators Native Americans and the South Dakota government should seek out ways to cooperate. This comes after a year in which Gov. Kristi Noem and tribal leaders clashed over coronavirus measures. 

Chairman Mike Faith delivered the annual State of the Tribes address Thursday. He struck a positive tone in the speech to state lawmakers, emphasizing areas where they can find common ground, including law enforcement, addiction treatment and the common experience of deaths amid the pandemic.

“It’s time to mend fences, time to go forward positively with people,” Faith said.

State government and the nine federally recognized tribes have an uneasy relationship that was exacerbated in 2020 when several tribes set up coronavirus checkpoints at reservation borders to keep out unnecessary visitors. Noem threatened to sue to have them taken down, although she didn’t follow through.

Related:
— South Dakota checkpoints timeline of events
— South Dakota governor calls on Trump in tribal checkpoint feud

The leaders of the two tribes who sparred with the Republican governor over the checkpoints, the Oglala Lakota and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes, did not attend the address. Neither did Noem.

Three of the nine tribes were represented during the ceremony, which filled the House chamber with the sound of a pulsating drum and Lakota flag song. Tribal leaders and some lawmakers wore beadwork around their necks to represent their tribes.

The address at the beginning of the legislative session is delivered every year by one of the elected tribal leaders and is intended to promote cooperation and spell out legislative priorities from a tribal leader's perspective. Faith used the opportunity to seek support for a proposal to establish schools that would teach Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota language and culture, called Oceti Sakowin schools.

He said the schools would be important to students' self-identity and help foster a revival of Oceti Sakowin — or Sioux — culture.

“Our custom, traditions, our song and dance, it’s coming back strong,” Faith said.

But he also acknowledged that the pandemic threatens the culture, as tribal elders have been particularly vulnerable to the virus. The Standing Rock Sioux have prioritized Native-language speakers, people who lead ceremonies and clergy for COVID-19 vaccinations.

The Department of Health says Native Americans are disproportionately affected by the virus, making up 13 percent of deaths statewide while representing just 9 percent of the population.

Rep. Tamara St. John, a Republican who is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, praised the tone of Faith's address as a step towards fostering partnerships to tackle issues such as drug addiction and economic development. She also said she was excited that the Oceti Sakowin school proposal was back at the legislature after failing in the House last year.

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