Tim Giago: Coffee and bagels with Tim Johnson
He still has an open eye and ear for anything and everything happening in Indian Country. It is one of the main interests in his life and it shows.

Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) moves a little slower, shakes hands with his left hand because he has not recovered the strength in his right hand, walks with a cane, and speaks a little slower, but he still has the gleam in his eye and that determination in his voice. But more than that, if any Native American sits and visits with him for any length of time, they would soon discover that this U. S. Senator knows more about the good, the bad and the ugly in Indian Country than any other sitting senator.

On December 13, 2006, Senator Johnson was doing a live broadcast on radio station WNAX, Yankton, when he suffered an attack of bleeding in the brain, an illness known as cerebral arteriovenous malformation that causes enlarged and tangled blood vessels in the brain. No one knew the seriousness of this sudden attack, but Sen. Johnson survived the operation following the illness and is well on his way to recovery.

He won re-election to his third term as senator in 2008, limiting his campaign appearances because of his slow recovery, but trusting the people of South Dakota to remember the time and service he had given them in the past. They remembered and he won his senate seat hands down.

Sen. Johnson is the only member of the Senate with a son, Brooks, serving in the United States Army. His wife Barbara is a professional social worker and he has another son, Brendan, and a daughter, Kelsey. When his wife had a bout with breast cancer, he was by her side every step of the way.

In order to understand the man, these are just a few of the things one should know about him. We met on Saturday morning over cups of hot coffee, bagels with cream cheese and fruit, supplied by his loyal staff at his Rapid City office.

With the recession racking most of America, these are tough times for anyone serving in the House or the Senate. Sen. Johnson's focus for the near future of Indian country is on jobs, housing, health and education. We talked about those things with the understanding that without jobs, a home, or good health, education is bound to suffer because good schools and good teachers have a hard time making up for unemployed parents, no home, or with serious illness in the family.

Sen. Johnson was elated to hear that Oglala Lakota College will have the highest enrollment this fall than it has ever had in its short history. More than 1,700 students have applied for admission so far and the counting is not over. "My very good friend Tom Short Bull has done a terrific job with OLC and I really admire and support his efforts," Sen. Johnson said.

We talked about the 2,000 pound elephant in the room, the one that will never go away until a solution is found, and that is about the settlement of the Black Hills issue, an ongoing problem that has existed since the unlawful taking of the Hills in the late 1800s. This issue is one that could be the destruction of a political career and all South Dakota politicians to date wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole. All would say that the ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1980 settled the issue when a monetary award was made, but since the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation refuse to accept that award although they are among the poorest of tribes in America, the issue is still a hot one.

Sen. Johnson reflected on this and surmised that perhaps things have changed in Washington and in South Dakota since 1980 when an attempt was made to introduce the Bradley Bill. "I've heard that President Obama addressed the issue of the Black Hills when he was campaigning out here, but I haven't seen anything written about it," Senator Johnson said.

However, he does believe that there is definitely a different attitude about a lot of things that were verboten 20 years ago and he believes that people can solve age old problems if they meet with open minds and talk about them. He doesn't know where the issue will lead, but does admit that it is an issue that will not go away. He is open to constructive discussion.

And finally, Senator Johnson wanted all of his friends in Indian Country to know that his health is coming back strong and that he is working very hard in their behalf to bring stimulus money to the reservations for law enforcement, housing, health, education and jobs.

Senator Johnson has been my good friend for 30 years and as his friend I will attest to the fact that there is no one better, no one more qualified, and definitely no one in the U. S. Senate more knowledgeable about the issues facing every Indian Nation in America. So all of you tribal leaders, judges and police officers, educators, healthcare workers, and housing specialists, I urge you to trust this man and offer him your advice and your concerns because you will get an honest answer from him. You can contact him the old fashioned way by calling his Washington, D. C. office at 1-202-224-5842.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

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