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Tribal leaders see slow progress despite legislative defeats

February 20, 2020 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Rep. Shawn Bordeaux is having a tough week. In the span of 24 hours, he witnessed three bills he introduced with the backing of at least one Native American tribe effectively killed in a legislative committee.

It didn’t come as a shock to the Democrat from Mission, who is also a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Bordeaux is a perennial champion of bills that don’t gain much ground in the South Dakota Legislature — issues supported by tribal members. So far this legislative session, none of the 12 bills he’s introduced have won a committee’s approval.

The lawmaker has responded to what he calls an attempt to “marginalize our issues” with a flurry of bills and sometimes poignant rants. Though his bills often lose year after year, he said that sometimes its about marginal victories — he gains an audience for issues and may slowly win votes one mind at a time. Several of his bills this year gained bi-partisan support on the State-Tribal Relations committee.

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On Wednesday night, a House committee voted down a proposal that had the backing of a majority of the nine tribes in the state, asking the Legislature to support a request to Congress to repeal the Dakota Removal Act, an 1863 law that forcefully removed Dakota tribes from Minnesota after a conflict with white settlers there. Lester Thompson, the chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, compared the law to the Jim Crow laws of the South.

But Rep. Tamara St. John, a Republican from Sisseton and a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, spoke in opposition to the proposal. She pointed out that not all Dakota tribes support the idea.

That was enough to convince Republican lawmakers to vote down the proposal.

Thompson said the action would continue to strain the state’s relationship with the tribes. Many tribal members deal with historical trauma from the forceful removal from Minnesota of their grandparents and great-grandparents, Thompson said.

“When you get legislators that continually poke the wounds, that hurt continues,” he said.

But the bill’s defeat was a familiar action for Thompson and other tribal leaders.

A proposal to allow tribes to access a fund for law enforcement costs related to pipeline builds was also shot down Wednesday. Last week, legislators opposed a bill to force school districts to allow graduates to wear beaded graduation caps that have cultural significance. And the week before that, lawmakers tabled a proposal to create a Commission made up of representatives from the tribes because it was not clear if every tribe supported it.

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Lawmakers are often hesitant to pass a bill unless it has the endorsement of every tribe in the state.

Not every bill addressing Native American issues has died. The Senate passed a bill that would require businesses to accept tribal IDs. And a Senate committee on Thursday approved a bill that would allow four community-based schools that would teach Native American culture and language. Supporters of the schools bill said they had leaders from every tribe in the state sign off on the proposal before presenting it.

Despite the legislative defeats, Thompson said he will continue to make the 65-mile drive to Pierre to work the halls of the Capitol. He’s beginning to see incremental progress on some of the issues.

He pointed to a handful of Republicans who broke with their party to vote against a so-called riot boosting bill this year. The Republican-dominated House passed the bill amid protests from Native American groups on Tuesday.

Jason Cooke, the vice chairman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe who also frequents the Capitol, said he plans to push to get elected tribal leaders to call in to testify on bills.

“If we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu,” he said.