He will fight no more forever. South Dakota State Senator Neal Tapio lost the Republican primary for the state's congressional seat on June 5, 2018. Photo: Neal Tapio

Controversial Republican candidate loses primary after slamming tribal treaties

With his campaign flailing, a Republican candidate for Congress dropped a "bombshell" in South Dakota. He called for treaties to be renegotiated, describing the state of federal-tribal relations as broken, Indian children as being victims of abuse and tribal leadership as "corrupt."

“The current system has destroyed the futures of four generations of Indian children,” Neal Tapio wrote on his campaign site a week before the primary.

As if that weren't enough, he brought his views to life during a lengthy press conference, attempting to justify his controversial stance. Though Tapio, who is a state lawmaker, drew attention in the media, prominent tribal leaders were not impressed with his proposal, calling it ignorant of the cause of social woes in Indian Country.

"We have been forced onto these lands and then systematically swindled out of these lands by illegal acts of Congress," Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe wrote on Indianz.Com. "The reservations have incubated our people as we come to terms with the genocidal destruction of our families and culture."

Don't try to Tweet @nealtapio. The real Neal Tapio is over there.

It turns out Republican voters didn't warm to Tapio's message either. According to the unofficial results from the primary on Tuesday, he came in third, garnering just 24 percent of the vote.

Dusty Johnson, the chief of staff to the state governor, instead secured the nomination for the state's sole Congressional seat with a commanding 47 percent of the GOP vote.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the polls. Tapio's strongest level of support actually came from Republican voters on the Pine Ridge Reservation, according to the results.

In Oglala Lakota County -- home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe -- Tapio secured 35 percent of the vote, the results showed. He beat Johnson and Shantel Krebs, the other candidate and the current Secretary of State.

But lest anyone at Pine Ridge think their neighbors are clamoring for those treaties to be renegotiated, the raw numbers reflect a sobering reality. Tapio won Oglala Lakota County by just one vote -- the race could have gone in another way had someone in just one precinct chosen Krebs or even Johnson.

Tripp County was the only other place where Tapio outpolled his GOP rivals. He secured 41 percent of the vote in an area where the Rosebud Sioux Tribe has trust lands.

According to the results, Tripp ran the strongest in and around Winner, a city not far from the reservation border. He outpaced Johnson by 50 votes and Krebs by 175 votes.

Incidentally, Winner was the inspiration for the beloved Billy Jack series of films. Seeing how Indian people were mistreated by non-Indians in the community prompted the late Delores Taylor, who was the co-star and co-creator of the series, to bring what she witnessed growing up there to the screen.

But Tapio fell short elsewhere in Indian Country. In Todd County, for example, he trailed far behind his rivals in a place where Native Americans make up nearly 88 percent of the population. The county is home to the Rosebud Reservation.

Up in Cheyenne River homelands, the two counties where Native Americans make up more than 70 percent of the population also rejected Tapio by wide margins. And he barely even made at dent in Corson County, home to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and where Natives represent 64 percent of the population.

With the primary over, attention shifts to the general election. Johnson will face Democrat Timothy Bjorkman, a former state judge, who ran unopposed for his party's nomination. George Hendrickson, a Libertarian who has lived on the Rosebud Reservation, is also in the race.

Besides Tapio's missive, Indian issues have emerged in the race. Bjorkman has campaigned at Pine Ridge and on the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation. Johnson has called the Indian Health Service “the biggest failure of the federal government' in an interview on KWAT radio.

The state's sole Congressional seat is open because Kristi Noem, the Republican incumbent, is running for governor of South Dakota. She has often embraced tribal causes, focusing on reforming Indian health care during her time in Congress. She regularly travels to reservations in the state and meets with tribal leaders, both at home and in Washington, D.C.

Noem easily secured victory on primary day, claiming the GOP nomination over Marty Jackley, the state's attorney general. His record on Indian issues is far from positive.

According to the results, Noem won with 56 percent of the vote, showing strong support across most of state. One of the few places where she lost to Jackley was up at Standing Rock, though it was only by 4 votes.

In another race of interest, voters in Rapid City overwhelmingly approved a new arena in their community, the second most populous in the state and home to a large urban Indian population. Native Sun News Today, an independent outlet, endorsed the ballot initiative by drawing attention to the popular Black Hills Powwow and the Lakota Nation Invitational, a large Native basketball tournament and cultural event.

The general election takes place November 6.

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