Governor Dennis Daugaard established the Tribal Relations department when he took office two years ago and South Dakota is the only state to have it on the cabinet level. Since the beginning, tribal relations Secretary J.R. LaPlante has traveled the state, meeting with tribal officials and Native Americans to discuss the issues facing them. For the second year, LaPlante and Governor Daugaard hosted the State’s Tribal Relations Day at the capitol. This year’s topic is housing on reservations and in Indian Country. SDPB’s Cassie Bartlett spoke with LaPlante about the meetings and brings us today’s Dakota Digest.
J.R. LaPlante says when the Governor created the Department of Tribal Relations and put him in charge, people around the state wondered what Daugaard was doing and who this new Native American secretary was. Two years later, LaPlante says his department is still settling in, but has its main goal in sight.
“We really wanted to create opportunities for state officials and tribal officials to come together and have as much dialogue as possible, because I really am a big believer in dialogue and reaching and understanding of issues,” LaPlante says.
In the first year, LaPlante says his job was to bring officials together. He questions the best way to do that through summits, meetings, or conferences. Eventually he settled on holding a Tribal Relations Day during the legislative session. LaPlante says Native Americans are unique in the fact that they hold dual citizenship among their respective tribe and the state. He says it’s important for them to pay attention to what happens in the state government and talk with officials.
“That’s part of our job as an advocate for tribes and Native Americans in our state to keep people aware of the impending laws and the proposed laws that could impact Indian Country,” LaPlante says.
During Tribal Relations Day, Native American leaders and tribal members are invited to the capitol to discuss issues facing their communities and to initiate ideas to fix them. To keep the session conducive, LaPlante says they focus on one topic based on what he and the governor hear most about while traveling the state. Last year’s topic focused on economic development, but this year leaders discussed housing.
“Housing has been one of those perceived needs by tribal leaders. Although there may be a need on all reservations, the needs differ from reservation to reservation. Some tribes are taking different approaches than other tribes. This also is an opportunity for us to learn about some of the best practices out there in terms of addressing those needs,” LaPlante says.
Tribal Relations Day opens with a morning listening session. Tribal leaders share experiences about housing in their own communities. Ron Brown Otter of the Standing Rock Sioux says his tribe puts money into repairing small issues in homes, but there’s not enough to fix all the problems. He says with unemployment rates so high, it’s difficult for members to even afford a house.
“The challenges we face today with our land and trying to work with the banks to provide monies for young families or whoever wants to own the American dream. We want that slice of pie too, ya know. We don’t want to just talk about it or move away off the rez, we want those things for our families, too,” Brown Otter says.
Most of the tribal leaders agree there isn't enough money to provide housing for all their people. Tolly Estes is the CEO of the Corporate Housing Authority in Fort Thompson. He says Native Americans are struggling because their issues involve three different governments: federal, state and tribal. Estes says the programs that are meant to help Native Americans don’t usually work the way they’re supposed to because there’s so much overlap.
“We’re living in a system that doesn’t belong to us. This system is a state system and a federal system that isn’t a tribal system. We don’t have an economic development system, we don’t have a money system, we don’t even have a bank on our reservation. Nobody on our reservation, none of our homeowners know about credit,” Estes says.
Estes says officials need to actually go to the reservations and see how the people are living instead of just talking about the issues. Governor Daugaard says the state is working with the tribes to help alleviate the lack of housing on reservations.
“The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe hosted a training that was sponsored by the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency and the South Dakota Housing Development Authority about the development of supportive housing for the chronic homeless.”
“Another tribal initiative, the Oglala Sioux Tribe is moving forward with Native success in a plan to build a 32-unit housing complex specifically for homeless veterans and their families.”
“Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation has an initiative to build straw bale homes to bring more energy efficient and sustainable housing to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.”
“The South Dakota Housing Development Authority is working with tribes in South Dakota to gather more accurate information in regards to housing needs and homelessness. Through the years, the South Dakota Housing Development Authority has partnered with tribal and nonprofit agencies in developing or rehabbing over 820 housing units with an investment over 70 million dollars,” Daugaard says.
To end the day, students from the Tiospa Zina Tribal School dance and sing. Tribal Relations Secretary J.R. LaPlante says besides addressing issues facing Native Americans, Tribal Relations Day is about coming together and learning about the different cultures in South Dakota. For South Dakota Public Broadcasting, I’m Cassie Bartlett in Pierre.