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Opinion
Tim Giago: Sen. Johnson never wanted the spotlight


You can take the entire population of South Dakota and put it into Albuquerque and just about break-even. In fact, South Dakota�s population might come up a little short.

While most of the rural counties in this state continue to lose population, the counties located on the nine Indian reservations in the state continue to grow. The new jobs provided by the advent of Indian casinos are bringing the Indian people home although on most of the reservations unemployment still hovers around 50 percent.

When Tim Johnson (D-SD) ran for re-election against John Thune (R-SD) in 2002 the growing political acumen on the Indian reservations came sharply into play. As the vote tallies came to a conclusion and with only one major precinct still not reporting, Thune led Johnson by about 3,000 votes and there are those who say that the champagne bottles were about to be pulled from the ice buckets.

The lonely, yet populous precinct yet to report was on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The hearts of John Thune�s supporters sank as the count came in and the Lakota voters overwhelmingly got behind Sen. Johnson and he squeaked out a 574-vote lead that held.

Of course Thune made a strong comeback when he narrowly defeated Sen. Tom Daschle in the 2004 campaign. The Republican political machine proved to be so effective that even the Indian vote couldn�t pull it out for Daschle.

Although he has spent 10 years in the United States Senate, Tim Johnson was the quiet man that was hardly noticed on a national level. He did his job efficiently and without fanfare. He made it a point to seek out the Indian leadership in the state and discuss the issues important to them. There is not one senator in Washington that has more knowledge about Indian affairs than Tim Johnson.

That is why it came as a frightening shock to nearly every Indian in the state when Sen. Johnson fell ill with bleeding in his brain this week. At the Lakota Nation Invitational Basketball Tournament, a 30-year-old annual event that brings nearly 10,000 Indians to Rapid City each December, the conversations of the people centered on the condition of Sen. Johnson.

The LNI, as it is affectionately known around here, is more than a basketball tournament. The event has grown to include meetings for teachers, booksellers, handball games, boxing matches and educational events. It has become the place where old friendships are renewed, new friendships formed and a time when whites and Indians get together at a sporting event that pits the Indian teams against the white teams as diverse as Custer High School. Today one could not walk through the lobbies of any of the hotels and motels without observing Lakota people scanning the headline of the local daily newspaper that read, �Johnson Recovery Probable.� Television sets situated in the lobbies were tuned to CNN or MSNBC to get the latest medical reports.

People were talking about how Sen. Johnson got behind the Pya Wiconi Project (New Life) to bring fresh water to the reservations and about how he fought the Bush Administration to get cut funds restored to the Indian Health Service.

While the people of South Dakota worried about Sen. Johnson�s recovery and for the welfare of his wife Barbara and their children the talking heads of the national media speculated about how the balance in the Senate would shake out in the event of Sen. Johnson�s death or incapacitation. �They are like a bunch of vultures,� said one elderly Lakota man.

Shortly after the New Year I got a call from Sen. Johnson and he asked me if I could join him for dinner. A Lakota marine named Brett Lundstrom had just been killed in Iraq and the senator wanted to talk about this and to ask questions about things in Indian country.

We drove up simultaneously to our appointed meeting at the Colonial House Restaurant only to discover that it was closed on Sunday so we detoured to Perkins Restaurant.

Sen. Johnson asked questions about the Indian colleges, law enforcement on the reservation, about housing and jobs and, of course, he was very concerned about funds the Bush Administration had cut from the Indian Health Service hospitals. His interest and concern about the Indian people was genuine and heartfelt.

I must say that I was appalled when I heard that a reporter from back East had called the office of the Republican Governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, and said, �I understand you have already picked a Republican to replace Sen. Johnson and I was wondering who it is?�

South Dakotans may be considered out-of-touch or even a little backward, but at least we try to refrain from such acts of rudeness and inconsideration of people during their times of grief and concern.

We are a small state where 10 to 12 percent of the total population is Native American, but in times of tragedy and sorrow, we all come together as one. Let me just add that today all of our hopes and prayers, whether in Lakota or English, are for the quick and safe recovery of Tim Johnson, a man who never needed or wanted to be in the spotlight.

McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago�s weekly column. He can be reached at P.O. Box 9244, Rapid City, SD 57709 or at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990 � 1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, �Children Left Behind�

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