Native American lawmaker finds little support in quest to reconcile the races in South Dakota


In 1990, Gov. George Mickelson proclaimed a century of racial reconciliation in South Dakota. Given recent events, it just might take that long.

Gov. Kristi Noem managed to anger Native American legislators when she asserted that the state’s reservations were strongholds for Mexican drug cartels. She smoothed over some of those hurt feelings in a special meeting with Native American lawmakers the next day, but her diplomacy did not reach as far as the reservations.

For her remarks connecting the reservations to Mexican drug cartels, she has, once again, been barred from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by the Oglala Sioux Tribe. She was banished from the reservation in 2019 for her backing of legislation that would have interfered with the tribe’s ability to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.

Certainly there are drug problems on the reservations, but having the governor make such a stark connection between the tribes and the cartels isn’t going to help the reservations attract jobs or industry. That’s not the kind of quote from the governor that they’ll want to highlight on their economic development brochures.

The current lack of racial reconciliation goes beyond the governor’s often rocky relationship with the tribes. In their own way, legislators are pushing aside the needs of tribes as they defeat bills aimed at helping Native Americans.

A case in point is the work of Sen. Shawn Bordeaux, a Democrat from Mission. During the current session, Bordeaux is the main sponsor of 19 bills that have a Native American connection. On 16 of those bills, he is the sole sponsor. It’s as if he is on a one-man quest to make sure that lawmakers at least have to think about the reservations.

Bordeaux withdrew one of the bills for which he is the sole sponsor. The other 15 have all been sent to the 41st day of the 38-day session, a common method for dispensing with legislation that’s deemed unworthy of taking the next step to the Senate floor. The three bills that Bordeaux is prime-sponsoring with cosponsors are still pending. They would allow the use of tribal identification cards when registering to vote, support the erecting of a code talker memorial on the Capitol grounds, and call on federal officials to investigate the medals awarded to soldiers for the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.

Bordeaux didn’t dream up this legislation over the summer. He’s in his first term in the Senate and brought many of the same bills multiple times during his eight years in the House. Call him tenacious, call him stubborn — Bordeaux seems to believe he has some answers to the question about how to reconcile the races.

Take Senate Bill 154 calling for the establishment of a Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. The commission would, among other things, take testimony on past government policies that involve Native American tribes, identify policies that impact Native Americans and provide recommendations on how to begin the healing process.

Speaking in opposition to the bill was someone from the state Department of Tribal Relations who said the bill would needlessly grow government. Healing, the spokesperson said, was not a government function. Someone should probably alert the state Departments of Health and Human Services about that fact. The Senate State Affairs Committee sent SB 154 to the 41st day on an 8-1 vote.

The same committee disposed of SB 143, which would have created a Commission on Indian Affairs. The commission, as imagined by Bordeaux, would have representatives from all nine of South Dakota’s tribes who would pay their own expenses to meet four times a year with the secretary of the Department of Tribal Relations. They would work on improving services to American Indians and promote communication and relations between the state and the nine tribes.

David Flute, the secretary of the Department of Tribal Relations, testified against the bill, saying it would infringe on the duties of tribally elected officials and add a layer of bureaucracy to state government.

That was good enough for Sen. Michael Rohl, an Aberdeen Republican who made the motion to send the bill to the 41st day. Rohl is the co-chairman of the Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee, and he said this would just get in the way of their work.

Among other bills, Bordeaux sought to exempt tribal members from camping fees and hunting and fishing license fees. A reasonable enough request since this was all originally tribal land and tribal resources. Both bills were relegated to the 41st day by the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Bordeaux earned praise for SB 159, which would have prohibited school districts from using team names that are derogatory toward Native Americans and their culture. Senate Education Committee members said it was Bordeaux repeatedly bringing this issue to the Legislature that helped so many school districts realize that their team names were offensive to Native Americans. When the praise for Bordeaux ended, the committee sent the bill to the 41st day.

Gov. Mickelson declared a century of reconciliation in 1990. Now a third of that century has passed and, as a state, we’re no closer to reconciliation than we were when his airplane crashed. The nine tribes in South Dakota live on reservations that take up almost half the state. Yet, from the actions of the governor and the Legislature, it seems that the needs of the state’s Native Americans are best relegated to the 41st day.