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Noem plan on tribal relations: mixing politics with reservation moments that change you forever
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U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem at the Black Hills Press Club and Forum

Kristi Noem had plenty to say at the Black Hills Press Club and Forum last Friday here in Rapid City. None of it was more important than this:

“If you’ve ever spent time with the students, and with these children that are 9, 10, 11 years old, that are so helpless that they’re committing suicide, you will be forever changed by it.”

I can tell you, I’ve been forever changed by it. And I have to say, I think Noem has been, too.

Some of this is politics, of course. She’s a four-term congresswoman running to be governor of South Dakota — which would be an historic election in the state.  A first. And she was making a campaign stop at the press club.

She knows how to campaign. She’s good at it. And she was making an important Rapid City stop at the Press Club. So what else would a smart candidate do but show deep emotion when a cranky, gray haired reporter raised the question of the state’s role in trying to help with life-and-death problems faced by tribal people in South Dakota, including the heart-breaking suicide rates among Native youth.

But it wasn’t all politics on Noem’s part. I believe that, because I’ve been there when Noem listened to the stories from those kids in person, down on the Pine Ridge.

Kids. We’re talking about kids. Kids who wanted to kill themselves. Kids who tried. Kids whose friends or family members did. Kids feeling lost and frightened, without hope. Kids.

Noem once told me that the stories she heard down on the Pine Ridge and over on Rosebud touched her “mother’s heart.” They made her sad. They made her mad. They made her want to do something more than the things that had been done, or not done, by state officials before.

And on Friday she said that part of that something would begin to take shape this week, in a tribal-relations proposal that would be about a lot more than tribal relations. She also said something that was almost as important as the life-changing interactions with kids at risk:

 “What I want is one tribe,” Noem said. “I want one tribe to take a chance with me.”

There are nine tribes in South Dakota. So Noem is realistic enough to know that, if elected governor, she wouldn’t just call around and get nine tribes at the table, ready to take a chance on a new governor with some ideas for tribes.

Why should she? Tribes have plenty of reasons for suspicion when it comes to state initiatives, and state governors. Building trust would take time. And it would also take a volunteer.

“I don’t expect all of them to get on board,” Noem said. “But if I’ve got one tribe that’ll come to the table and say, ‘If you want to approach education different, health care different, how we care for our families in law enforcement issues, boy, we can do some good work.’”

Noem said Friday there were details coming this week, from Sisseton. That’s where she was — up in northeast South Dakota, the land of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate — Monday when she released her tribal-relations proposal.

With it, she said she would hope to “enhance tribal relations,” bolster tribal communities through economic development, keep pressuring the Indian Health Service to improve failing services that have reached crisis stages in some areas and build better partnerships with tribe on public safety as well as tribal heritage and culture.

Some bullet points of what Noem would hope to do:

 * Strengthen the position of the state Secretary of Tribal Relations, which was elevated for the first time to cabinet-level status by Gov. Dennis Daugaard. Noem would also commit “tribal-constituent-services representatives" who would be trained and directed to create “a culture of customer service” in services to the tribes.

* Bolster workforce development efforts, and encourage more affordable housing on and off reservations.

* Work with tribes to expand employment opportunities in Indian Country in predictable areas like agriculture and tourism, but also in newer employment options like data-center industries that would benefit from “ongoing rural broadband expansion.” Noem points to the Native Act she supported in the U.S. House, which was intended to boost tourism in tribal areas.

* Encourage the expanded use of Care Coordination Agreements that help blend health care between primary medical providers and specialists and improve access to a variety of health-care services that would be 100-percent covered by the federal government.

* Expand the involvement of South Dakota hospitalsand and medical providers to assist the Indian Health Service where possible. Seek ways to increase mental-health services available to Native Americans across the state and support pilot programs that provide treatment as an alternative to incarceration for more non-violent offenders.

* Support tribes and health-care providers in working to take over management of IHS facilities where possible.

* Work to increase residential and family based treatment options for meth and other drug addictions.

Good intentions, but nothing earth shaking so far. And almost no details on how all this would work. Maybe those are coming.

I’m most interested in the “constituent-service representatives” and how they would work with tribes. I like name and the idea. I’m just not sure what they mean. Outreach by the state, though, is good — if it involves more listening than it does talking.

I’d like to see a lot more details on how the state can assist in health-care challenges on the reservations, and in Native communities in urban areas that have more access to services than do reservation residents but are still challenged. I’d like to see state money put where the state’s mouth is in questions like this, too. But that’s another discussion.

What matters most to me about the Native American position paper by Noem is that she offered it at all. That hasn’t typically been a high-profile issue for Republican candidates in South Dakota, where reservations are presumed to be Democratic turf come election time.

Republicans leaders in South Dakota have had a shaky relationship with tribal governments for generations. Gov. George S. Mickelson took an important step toward understanding when he was inspired by Native American journalist Tim Giago to declare a Year of Reconciliation in 1990 that was followed by an extended effort of reconciliation.

It was a clumsy, imperfect but essential and completely good-hearted effort by Mickelson, who made a personal outreach to Native people that I can’t remember from a governor, before or since. Mickelson’s efforts ended tragically on April 19, 1993 when he and seven others died in an airplane crash in Iowa.

 Many tribal people, including Giago, say the reconciliation effort stalled after Mickelson died. Which is not to say nothing has been done.

In 2010, Gov. Mike Rounds declared a Year of Unity in South Dakota to honor Native culture and history. Under Rounds, the state helped construct an essential rural water system to provide drinking water for tribal members on the Cheyenne River Reservation. It established an Office of Indian Education and the establishment of the Hagen-Harvey Scholarship for Native college students in South Dakota. The scholarship was named after Minerva Harvey, who left proceeds from her estate to that cause, and Richard Hagen, a legislator from Pine Ridge.

Along with elevating the stature of the Tribal Relations secretary position, Gov. Dennis Daugaard has made Mickelson-like visits to reservations, seeking to build and improve relationships with tribal officials.  His Tribal Relations Department has begun State-Tribal Relations Day in the state Legislature, and established a State of the Tribes address by a tribal leader during the legislative session, with training for tribal officials on the sessions and how to engage and participate.

The state Game, Fish & Parks Department and the Tribal Relations Department have worked with tribes on prairie dog restoration, game trapping-and-transplanting and big-game licensing coordination.

And speaking of one tribe taking a chance, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate took a chance in cooperating with the state Department of Corrections on parole agreements, including allowing tribal members on parole to serve that parole on the reservation. DOC officials believe it improves outcomes for parolees. And at least some tribal officials must agree, because it is being expanded to the Flandreau Santee Tribe.

Throughout the development process of Good Earth State Park, Daugaard and state parks officials wisely engaged in substantial consultation with tribal leaders, showing deference and respect for their expertise and preferences. And continuing long-standing work in gaming and taxes, there is an assortment of agreements and gaming compacts with different tribes.

But there is much more to do, particularly in the lightly touched (by the state) areas of health care, suicide, vehicle-accident rates, drug-and-alcohol abuse and gang activity on the reservations.

Part of the solution is the simple, strong commitment on the part of the governor to get something more done, because it’s the right thing to do.

And the politics? Well, whatever Noem puts in her plan, it’s next to certain that she won’t carry the big West River reservations. Billie Sutton will have both the historic Democratic connections to Indian Country and overwhelming Democratic registration, as well as his own personal connections in some areas. He’ll also have more favor among non-Native voters out in ranch country than past Democrats have had.

Sutton also has his own ideas for state-tribal relations, which I’ll look at soon.

So if you’re Noem, why raise this as an campaign issue? Well, it could help her with independents and some moderate Republicans who might be leaning Sutton. And it could be that she just believes in her mother’s heart that it’s the right thing to do.

Noem made a pitch for the latter reason early in her news release:

“Over the past eight years, I’ve had an opportunity to forge meaningful relationships with tribal leadership and members,” she said. “We worked collaboratively on ways to improve the Indian Health Service, combat human trafficking and expand economic development efforts in Indian Country.

“I’m hopeful that through this work, we’ve built a foundation of trust and mutual understanding,” she said. “Because as governor, I want to have a different kind of relationship with South Dakota’s nine tribes, one that truly embraces the meaning of ‘Dakota,’ or ‘ally.’”

That was followed in the news release by a comment of support from OJ Semans, a Rosebud Tribe board member and former member of the tribe’s health board -- a guy I have covered on a number of essential tribal-health and voting-rights issues:

 “I have worked with Kristi’s office on these important issues,” Semans said. “And I am thrilled she is bringing her passion in working with tribes to the governor's office.”

Well, she hopes to bring it there. But there’s still that whole November election thing to consider.