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Secretary Flute: Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations

Cara Hetland: Welcome, Secretary Flute. Thanks for being with us today.

Secretary Flute: Good afternoon. And I appreciate joining you and the invitation. Thank you.

Cara Hetland: Well, thank you very much. So let's talk a little bit more about your background and how you came to be Secretary of Tribal Relations.

Secretary Flute: Sure. I'm a lifelong resident of the state of South Dakota. Grew up and lived here in Roberts County on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation. Graduated high school up here from Browns Valley School, went on to the National Guard and went on to doing work, road construction and different types of things. And worked for our tribal school for a number of years as a Dakota language instructor.

Been a part of tribal government for a very long time. My dad was chairman here for a number of years and his involvement in tribal government and government-to-government relations throughout Indian country, helped to shape me and educate me in the things that you don't learn in college when it comes to tribal politics. And I deployed with the 235th Military Police Company to Afghanistan in 2007, 2008. Went on to college at North Dakota State university and obtained two bachelor degrees up there.

And that led me to wanting to come back and work for my tribe and do what I could for, not just my tribe, but the tribes and the Great Plains region. I served at the pleasure of the United Tribes of North Dakota Board. Served as vice chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Health Board, and I was appointed to the HHS Secretary's Tribal Advisory Board there for a while. Didn't get reelected during my last election unfortunately, but working with Governor Noem while I was chairman, when she was a member of Congress. I responded to the request of the position of Cabinet Secretary for Tribal Relations and here I am.

Cara Hetland: Now it's the mission of your office to support tribal self-governance and also establish trust and promote understanding. I got that language from your website. And so I'm wondering how this is going so far during this pandemic?

Secretary Flute: Well, it's been a challenge and it's to be expected. We're in unprecedented times here and our generation and the last two generations, I guess I would say fairly and safely, that we haven't experienced this type of a pandemic in our lifetime so it's new for everybody. And whenever there is a new challenge, there are going to be some bumps in the road. But working together and being respectful of each other's positions is what's going to help us get through this.

Cara Hetland: And so talk a little bit about what all your office has done during this pandemic about COVID-19.

Secretary Flute: Initially we were disseminating a lot of information that was coming in from our federal partners, our regional partners. When I talk of region, I'm talking to the regional BIA office, FEMA, and then on the national level, we were receiving a lot of information from Indian Health Service and other federal agencies that had shared a lot of information.

And I speak from a former chairman's perspective when I say this, that as a former chairman, we're inundated with hundreds of emails, literally hundreds of emails every day. And I felt it was necessary that our agency enhance that communication and coordinate and join our federal partners and our other agencies that were sending information to tribe. And the reason we were doing that was to make sure that our tribes were getting that information. Again, as a chairman, as a former council member, there's a lot of times that you go through hundreds of emails and with everything else that a tribal leader needs to juggle throughout the day, they can be overlooked sometimes.

And so we started doing that, and our South Dakota Department of Health had asked us to engage with our tribes to set up weekly calls in which we had facilitated, and it's been a little sporadic, but we've had good turnout from our tribes and good tribal representation. Our Department of Health is always keeping the tribes updated on those weekly calls. And so we were another arm of communication for our state agencies and our federal agencies to the tribes.

And we've also taken calls. We've taken constituent calls from all of South Dakota citizens, tribal and non-tribal alike. And we took a lot of calls and I think that's what led to our concerns with the checkpoints.

Cara Hetland: So we're going to get to the checkpoints, but let's take just a minute and take me back just a little bit. I mean, the information that was coming when this pandemic first started, changed every day. So how did you best communicate those changes and that information to the tribes?

Secretary Flute: There was some of it were through phone calls with a few of the tribal leaders. But on a more fair and equal dissemination to all the tribes, we sent everything in one mass email to all 110 tribally elected leaders from all of our respective tribes, the nine tribes of the state of South Dakota. And two of them share the borders with North Dakota.

But we would send that information to all nine tribes, all tribal leaders, not just the chairman, but all of the tribally elected leaders in one mass email. And we would get responses from time to time from the different tribes and from different tribal leaders, thanking us for the information. And it was nice to receive those responses because it lets us know that they are receiving those emails with all the information, and it's just courteous to respond.

Cara Hetland: And you say you received a lot of input from all over to your office and feedback. And so let's talk a little bit about some of the things that you're hearing from people, especially about the checkpoints. What are people saying?

Secretary Flute: So, when we were alerted to the checkpoints, and I say I'm talking specifically of tribal relations, we were monitoring the checkpoints and just through information gathering and we shared that with senior leadership. And I know it was shared up the chain to the governor, and it was more for us just pulling in information and a lot of calls. I wouldn't say a lot, but we were receiving calls from tribal citizen and from non-tribal citizens, of some of the concerns they had.

And early on in those calls, it was more of some miscommunications that, I think it's fair to say that we bounced our communications back to the chairman, speaking specifically of Cheyenne river, bouncing those communications back to Chairman Frazier and trying to facilitate working this out at the lowest level possible. And unfortunately the call volume increased, and there was a heightened sense of concern by our South Dakota constituents, again tribal, and non-tribal. It wasn't just one faction of people, it was coming from both tribal and non-tribal South Dakota citizens.

And so the more we started receiving calls and concerns and inconsistencies in the checkpoint operation, it just heightened our alertness. And now we're still trying to figure out a way forward here. And I think we've did a lot in extending our hand on behalf of the governor and behalf of the state of South Dakota to invite the tribe to a meaningful discussion, but unfortunately they refused.

That was a couple of weeks ago. And I see that there is been some real good headway made and I'm optimistic and I'm hopeful that the tribe will come to the table.

Cara Hetland: And did you help facilitate this all with the governor? And did you help the governor with her initial request?

Secretary Flute: From what I was tasked to do is to, again, trying to manage things at the lowest level possible so that it didn't [inaudible 00:11:33] of a state of unnecessaryness. And so I had reached out to the chairman on a formal call that was hosted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the regional office. And I extended that request on behalf of the governor to the chairman if they would join us for a conference call to share each other's concerns and to hear each other out. We felt it was necessary that the tribe have an opportunity to share.

Their intentions, their checkpoint operations, how they plan on conducting these who's going to be allowed through. And we just wanted to hear that detailed information. But we also felt it was absolutely necessary and fair that the tribe hear our concerns of on behalf of the state and the constituent calls that we were receiving. And we thought it would be a good idea to sit down together so we could hear each other out. But unfortunately, and I say this with respect to Chairman Frazier, but unfortunately he voiced his position on this formal phone call and said no. He said, "No, I will not engage with the state of South Dakota on this checkpoint issue."

And I was not the host of the call. The BIA regional was the host of the call so I just respectfully didn't comment at any point after that. And that's the last communications I've had with Chairman Frazier.

Cara Hetland: So what is the path going forward?

Secretary Flute: I think the path going forward has been laid out in the governor's thoughts and her position that ... The governor understands and respects tribal sovereignty. Again, I know this from experience and working with her as a former chairman, former council member, that on the US and state highways ... Excuse me, on the US and state highways that no one entering or traveling on a US or state highway can be stopped or impeded. And this means no tribal permit would be required for travel on any such highway, state highway. Any tribal interaction with traffic, otherwise passing through the reservation, is unlawful and could actually increase the risk of spread of the virus on the reservation.

The other point that the governor's laid out is it is within tribal sovereignty to establish checkpoints on BIA and tribal roads. She knows that, the governor knows that and she's been very respectful with stating that, and the state has no objection to tribal checkpoints on BIA or tribal roads. We know that the tribes have the right to govern their tribally owned roads on their tribally owned lands. We understand that and respect that. And anyone turning off a US highway for a destination within a reservation could be subject to a tribal checkpoint. So if there's a non-citizen traveling through US highway, they choose to go down a tribally owned road, they are then going to be under the tribe's color of authority.

The last point that I know the governor has made and the position that we support, as the state of South Dakota asks for reasonable accommodations on the BIA and tribal roads for the good of all the reservation residents and the tribal members. And this includes access for people to permit emergency services, the delivery of foods and goods and energy and medical supplies, and access to private property within the reservation.

So I think those are reasonable. They are definitely a position that, speaking from a tribal chairman's perspective, those are reasonable, and those are positions that there shouldn't be any confrontation or conflict.

Cara Hetland: And so how do you resolve the conflict?

Secretary Flute: Well, in good government-to-government communications, you got to communicate. And when agencies and other sovereign nations respectfully and cordially asked you to engage in a good discussion so that we can work through things, both parties have got to be at the table. They've got to be engaged. And when we're extending our hand in a good way to our neighbors, to our partners, to our tribes, to our communities, and there's a situation like this, a very important circumstance that needs to be addressed, both parties have got to be at the table and being respectful and engage in a meaningful discussion.

And when one of the parties chooses not to come to the table to engage in a discussion, it doesn't mean that you all both have to agree on the points you're making, but you have to find that resolve. But the only way to find that resolve is talking through it. And I'm a little disappointed that we have extended that opportunity to Chairman Frazier. Unfortunately he refused. And so I'm hopeful that with the governor's ... The governor's been very patient, she's been very firm on her position. I support her position entirely, and I appreciate her patience with her respect to tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty, that unfortunately our South Dakota constituency has been making phone calls and we have to do something about it.

So I think in a path forward, the governor has extended her hand again for the tribe to sit down with us and work this out. So, the ball is in their court, and really hoping that they engage with state leaders.

Cara Hetland: Secretary Flute, I want to thank you for taking time and coming on the program today. I really appreciate it. So much more to talk about, and I hope we can have you back on again very soon.

Secretary Flute: Hey, thank you and have a good weekend. Be safe, stay healthy, and we'll talk soon. Thank you.