Tribal leaders air concerns in meeting with Thune

Leaders of South Dakota's nine tribes met with Sen.-elect John Thune on Thursday to urge the Republican to advocate for their issues in Washington.

At a meeting arranged by The Native Voice, an independent, Indian-owned newspaper, tribal leaders were open about their support for outgoing Sen. Tom Daschle. In over 25 years of public service, the Democrat was a powerful champion for Indian issues, they noted.

But with Daschle heading out of office, tribes are looking to Thune to carry on the tradition. "Senator, let me call you that, you have some big boots to fill, as you well know," said Charles Colombe, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

The meeting was called primarily to open the lines of communication between tribes and their new senator. Lise Balk King, one of the publishers of the newspaper, said tribes were frustrated because their requests to speak with Thune were going unanswered.

"The message that we were getting," she said, "was that there wasn't an immediate response coming from the Senator-elect's office to answer to requests for meetings for face time or even on the phone."

Thune is still busy building up his staff but he told tribes that he was more than willing to change the situation. He said he was eager to work with them to develop solutions to problems faced on the reservation.

"That means reform, that means change," he said. "I certainly am open to that."

Treaty rights, trust reform, health care, education and law enforcement topped a long list of issues aired during the two-hour discussion. Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, pointed out that a lot of the concern boiled down to federal funding, or the lack of it.

"Our funding level is the lowest in the nation," he said. "We have $8 million a year for 14,000 members. That comes down to a little over $500 a year per Cheyenne River member for health care."

"If you look at that $500 a year versus the federal prisoners receiving $4,500 a year, that's quite ridiculous," he added. "It seems like you have to go to prison to get decent health care." Daschle tried several times to increase the Indian Health Service budget but was defeated by Republicans.

Michael Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, identified land-into-trust as an issue that will be growing in prominence once Thune enters the Senate. "It seems some real concentration, it needs some real insight," he said. The tribe has been trying to reclaim 90 acres of its former reservation but is being blocked by the state.

Jandreau and others said trust reform was another issue that will affect them greatly. Speakers blasted the Bush administration's reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and expansion of the Office of Special Trust, saying it doesn't address the needs of a region with a large land base and a large number of Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust accounts.

"Some of the things that are really attacking us is what the current administration is doing," said Frazier, who is also chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association. "It's important that our leaders stand up for us."

Other concerns expressed during the meeting were more philosophical. Kathy Janis, a council member for the Oglala Sioux Tribe who represented Cecilia Fire Thunder, the tribe's first female president, emphasized that tribes in the state have treaty rights.

"The United States government has a tendency to overlook us as a sovereign nation," she said.

Thune was accompanied by Gov. Mike Rounds (R), who was praised by the tribes for reaching out to Indian Country shortly after he entered office in January 2003. While the two sides don't always agree, tribal leaders said the open and honest dialogue they have established with the state is important.

Noting that communication is a "two-way street," Thune challenged tribes to keep an open mind as they work together in the future. "It's OK on a South Dakota reservation to have a two-party system," he said.

In elections over the past two years, voters on reservations have overwhelmingly chosen Democrat candidates. In 2002, when he lost by just 524 votes to Sen. Tim Johnson (D), and in 2004, when he defeated Daschle, Thune received a small percentage of the Indian vote.

Thune served six years in the House before leaving in 2002. His victory over Daschle last month has made him popular within the Republican Party.

The bulk of yesterday's meeting was supposed to be closed to the public and the press but it was opened after tribal leaders said they wanted their people to listen. Lise Balk King said The Native Voice had planned to distribute a transcript of the discussion.