South Dakota eliminates State Tribal Relations Committee: Not good for the state or race relations 

By Rep. Shawn Bordeaux (District 26A)

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Capitol… As the State Tribal Relations Committee chairman I have a big responsibility in making sure things are relevant to current activity in the State and Nation, particularly when it comes to Indian Country. The issues regarding race relations here in the Mississippi of the North, as it has been called, are most important. I thought about calling a meeting of the Committee to keep things moving forward on the many pressing issues of the day.  

So I call the staff at the Capitol Legislative Research Council office that helps us with this stuff and brick walls start to be thrown up in front of me. Senator Troy Heinert was with me when we were asked to come talk with them about our meeting. They wanted to know what I was going to talk about and I said I had follow-up to do on many topics we discussed over the past 19 months or so. So an email was sent out at my request to see when legislators are free to meet this month.  

Then I started building the agenda and I spoke to my friends from the Oyate Circle disabilities program and asked them if they would like time on the agenda to share their efforts and work in this critical area.  I also put the Department of Labor and Regulations on to discuss data in tribal communities and to assess how the withdrawal of the State from receiving federal unemployment would affect our communities. Next, I added the Small Business Administration and wanted to have a conversation about how their communities have recovered and how effective our programs were in helping them. I have been told Native entrepreneurs missed out on opportunities for various reasons while the non-Indian businesses got millions and did well even on reservations. This tells me we have to do a better job of outreach and talking with folks to figure out who needs the help the most.

Next, I heard we have a new Indian Education Director from Secretary Dave Flute’s Office of Indian Education. I was told a non-Indian from California is the new leader of this office.  I wanted to give him a chance to tell us his background and only had him on the agenda for five minutes. Next, I planned on inviting the Tribal Education Directors from the nine tribes to give us a report on their work for ten minutes but figured on giving all the time they wanted. Then I listed the immersion school in Mission that has had some success and I wanted them to share their story with us in committee to showcase an example of an elementary school with Lakota as the focus.

I invited the lobbyist for several of our tribes in the state to talk about a project we are working on at Sinte Gleska University with area tribes and an important agency in the US. (We will save that story for later.. I wanted to showcase how several tribes, a tribal college and the US can partner to do some important work here in South Dakota). Then I added the Secretary of Corrections to allow him time to share that inipis (sweatlodge) and wacipis (powwow) will be allowed soon in the state correctional facilities, which I feel is a feather in his hat and worthy of sharing with our native public (kudos, as some cultures say). Waste Chicago, Omaha lila sica, we say.

I also wanted to talk about the work being done by George Washington University with the South Dakota Native Tourism Association. We have been working with several tribes and the South Dakota Department of Tourism to develop this area that sadly has been ignored by tribes. 

I finished by making sure there was fifteen minutes of time for the public to testify. Sounds pretty harmless and I showed them exactly what I intended to talk about, so I was puzzled when I got a call from the Speaker of the House saying this meeting wasn’t going to happen. I said as a chairman of a committee, he couldn’t stop me from meeting. He said that we would need to elect a new chair as this is a new term, to which I replied that I added ten minutes at the beginning of the meeting to do just that.  He said we don’t have it in the budget to meet and that they wouldn’t pay for it. I said we could work for free and didn’t need their per diem as we had Teams or a Zoom platforms to meet. 

So I got the Executive Board a copy of the agenda before they met so they could argue about whether we could meet as a committee. At the end of the meeting, Senator Heinert said the Speaker said the State Tribal Relations Committee has been suspended until July, when new chairs take over from legislation passed just this session requiring chair appointments instead of elections for this committee alone. We committee members received an email saying the committee appointments are rescinded by the Speaker and President Pro Tem, so no committee exists to do this important work.

The late Governors Mickelson and Janklow must be rolling over in their graves. Gov. Janklow started his career on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe opening Dakota Plains Legal Services and volunteering as faculty at the newly-established Sinte Gleska University’s predecessor, Rosebud College Center. We even gave Noem an Honorary Doctorate from SGU when she was in Congress, it makes me wonder if they are paying attention up there in Pierre to what we have been doing for years here without their help. 

I’m sure the late governors are both in agreement that this can’t be good for the State and definitely not good for race relations. Nonetheless, we endeavor to persevere and we look beyond the petty dysfunctional politics that we have grown so accustomed to, not only in the state but in our tribal communities. Funny how they have money to sue over fireworks, but don’t care about anything else.