Native Sun News: Pumpkin Seed runs Oglala Sioux Tribe election
The following story was written and reported by Randall Howell. All content © Native Sun News.

PINE RIDGE, SOUTH DAKOTA –– He’s now working in the old Indian Health Services (IHS) hospital where he was born about 30 years ago.

Understated at best, Francis Pumpkin Seed is a quiet man who prefers action to talk. “I always try to stay positive. I don’t let things pull me down. I just stay positive and let them have their say and leave it at that,” said Pumpkin Seed on the day after a successful Pine Ridge Indian Reservation primary election.

Pumpkin Seed, chairman of the tribe’s Election Commission, was celebrating quietly along with his dedicated staff and his mission for the day after the reservation-wide primary election was to certify the vote and release the official results. That, in fact, happened.

“This used to take at least a week, but we’ve got it down to one day now,” he said with a smile of expectation. Constantly interrupted by phone calls from reservation residents who want those certified results – usually, just one selected district or precinct tally.

With the efficiency of a file clerk, Pumpkin Seed found the numbers and provided them to the caller without a change in his gait, or his voice. That’s customer service as he learned it when he was a younger man.

“When one is successful, there is always someone who wants to pull you down,” said Pumpkin Seed, who spent his elementary school years enrolled at public schools in Pierre. “But if they keep their priorities straight and get past all that negative energy, there’s nothing that can keep them from the positive. I didn’t let that (negative energy) pull me down. I stayed positive.”

A graduate of the Pine Ridge High School Class of 1998, Pumpkin Seed said he then enrolled in the paralegal program to study law at Western Dakota Tech. In two years, he had earned an associate’s degree and received certification as a paralegal. He soon began work with the Dakota Plains Legal Services.

“I was soon licensed to practice tribal law and I practiced at the tribe’s Supreme Court level for two years – 2002 through 2003,” he said, explaining that he then joined the Mni Wiconi program – a program that involved supplying rural reservation residents with water.

“And then it was to a position with the tribe’s property and supply division before becoming judiciary coordinator for the Tribal Council’s Judicial Committee,” said Pumpkin Seed, who indicated his work at that time was primarily toward the end of the troubled administration of then tribal President Cecilia Fire Thunder.

“As coordinator, I was the point person for tribal research for the (Judicial) Committee. It was hands-on,” he said. “That administration was one that made some really big changes.”

That was when the Judicial Committee rewrote the tribe’s gang ordinance, he said. “It’s a pretty strict ordinance. It’s stricter than the state’s law,” said Pumpkin Seed, who also may be the youngest county commissioner in the state. He is a member of the Shannon County Commission, though his term will expire at the end of this year.

Pumpkin Seed said that despite how strict the anti-gang ordinance is “it’s never been challenged even though it holds parents responsible for their children if they find them involved in gang activity.”

Pumpkin Seed, who was instrumentally involved in the development of the anti-gang ordinance, said that at the same time the BIA stepped in to take over the Department of Public Safety.

“At that time, I was told things didn’t look very good on paper (for tribal law enforcement,” he said, noting that though he stayed with the Fire Thunder administration, voters recalled the tribal president. Alex White Plume became tribal chairman, taking over from the recalled Fire Thunder.

In 2008, Theresa Two Bulls defeated White Plume and, last week, became the leading vote-getter in the tribe’s primary election. Under Pumpkin Seed and Two Bulls, election procedures changed. The Court of Election Appeals morphed into the tribe’s Election Commission and with approved “letters of intent,” Pumpkin Seed became its chairman and Sandra Old Horse became treasurer. Sedrick Young Bear was selected as an alternative.

“We no longer have the Court of Election Appeals. Challenges to the tribe’s election law go straight to the OST Supreme Court,” said Pumpkin Seed, who is a single father. His daughter, Lorelei, is four years old. Child care is shared with grandmother Linda Pumpkin Seed, whose son “has had her” since the child was just a year old.

Though he’s the man who made this year’s primary election happen, Pumpkin Seed has his eyes set on higher things – a law degree from New York University, for instance. He’s already been accepted at NYU and will be leaving for the Big Apple later this year, he told Native Sun News.

A tribal court advocate, Pumpkin Seed continues handling court cases on the reservation. In addition, he said he does volunteer work as a Victims of Crime Assistant (VOCA) and Can Gleska (Sacred Hoop).

Without his trusted and competent staff, Pumpkin Seed said he would never have made the deadlines for setting up the Election Commission to handle both the tribe’s primary election and its general election.

His staff includes Dorothy Brown Bear, office manager, Sandra Old Horse, treasurer, Ila Lone Hill, secretary, and Colleen Bald Eagle, office worker. Additional volunteers assisted Pumpkin Seed for the primary election.

“We had a successful primary election,” said Pumpkin Seed after the ballots had been counted last Tuesday evening. It was the tribe’s first use of electronic voting to capture an election. Under his guidance, what had taken as long as a week – the certification of votes – only involved one day. That certification process counted absentee ballots and challenged ballots, according to Pumpkin Seed, who has a firm, but easy manner about the Election Commission office, where he sometimes teases staffers, who often tease him back, calling him such things as “slave driver.”

Official results, released on Oct. 6, added votes to the totals of a handful of candidates. For instance, Therese Two Bulls, the incumbent tribal president and leading vote-getter among 10 candidates, found her unofficial vote tally on Oct. 5 was 771. Certified results for Two Bulls gave her an official total of 832 official votes, or 61 more.

“We went to work on the 26th of August,” said Pumpkin Seed. “We literally had four days to set up and off the ground to meet the lawful deadlines.” He explained that the Election Commission had to create a timeline for both the primary and general election, which is Tuesday, Nov. 2.

In addition, the commission faced certification of the candidates, the issuing of candidate petitions, perform background checks on candidates, certify that the elections would be held, post the list of candidates and then, in fact, actually hold the election.

Members of the commission also had to find 110 people to work the polls.

“The districts were asked to find their own poll workers,” said Pumpkin Seed. “Some of them did so, many did not respond to our request.” Consequently, Pumpkin Seed and his able staffers had to recruit a number of poll workers from across the reservation and conduct 10-day training sessions in Kyle, Manderson and Pine Ridge.

“We set everything up ahead of time,” he said. “We locked ourselves in. There are people who disagree with what we did, but you cannot please everyone. We tried to be reasonable.”

The results of the commission’s effort: 60 percent of the active voters – 5,000 to 6,000 – turned out for the primary election, according to the Election Commission’s figures. Pumpkin Seed, who has two brothers – Ronald Pumpkin Seed and Robert Little, an adopted brother –– and his staffers were pleased with that number, though they acknowledged that there are about 26,000 eligible voters on the reservation.

“Robert had a big family that included eight other brothers and sisters. So, yes, I come from a big family,” said Pumpkin Seed, who honors “the values” of the Lakota. “When we get together, it’s a big family.”

Explaining that he “didn’t practice the traditional ceremonies all the time,” Pumpkin Seed said that in 2007 he read a public notice that stated several unexpired seats were open on the Shannon County Commission.

“I decided to run against Peggy Pourier Combs,” he said. “I hadn’t really run for any political thing before in my life. He won the commission seat 533 to 178.

“I remember being so excited that election night that when they announced the results I ran home to tell my family,” he said, recalling that it was his first try for elective office. “I came through the front door shouting ‘I won!’” Well, everyone was asleep. I’ll always remember that.” Indeed, the Shannon County Commission seat has proven to be the “toughest challenge” he’s faced in public service. He finds himself walking in two worlds.

“I’m trying to be a Native American in a world where our beliefs and traditions are not accepted in one of those worlds. But I’m trying to maintain a balance there, in a world that lives by a whole different set of rules.”

Pumpkin Seed said that at some point he has to confront the question: “Do I leave my beliefs at the door?” He’s one of three American Indian commissioners who tend to vote together on county issues.

“It’s a rare thing,” said Pumpkins Seed. “You just don’t have a Native vote on any other country commissions in the state.”

Meanwhile, Pumpkin Seed wants to return to the reservation once he’s earned his law degree. That, too, creates something of a dilemma. “I’d like to come back and serve in some capacity, but I’d like to get experience in the real world, too. Here we’re so sheltered. Out in the real world, you have to grow,” said Pumpkins Seed.

“I’ve never been that way,” he said. “At 18, I owned my own home, had jobs, paid my bills and owned a car. That’s what’s given me the tools to make it this far in life.”

Explaining how “young I was” when he got out into the world, Pumpkin Seed said that he hoped he was setting an example for today’s youngsters on the reservation.

“I hope that it opens the door for them,” he said.

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