The following story was written and reported by Ernestine Chasing Hawk.
Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele and U.S. House Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota).
RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA — Shortly after winning her bid for South Dakota’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Kristi Noem (R-SD) pledged to meet with tribal leaders.
“We are going to immediately set up opportunities for me to sit down and visit with tribal leaders and the elders to discuss their specific concerns,” Noem said in November.
Just one month after her inauguration into office, South Dakota’s newest Congressional leader seized that opportunity when the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association was meeting with Great Plains Region Bureau of Indian Affairs officers at the Ramkota Hotel in Rapid City.
In a room filled with some of the most influential tribal leaders on the Northern Plains, including former National Congress of American Indians President and current Chairmen of the Three Affiliated Tribes Tex Hall, Noem was initiated into the world of Indian policy.
After being appointed to the Natural Resources Committee and the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs Noem said on her Congressional Website, “These subcommittees will provide a great platform to fight for South Dakota priorities in Washington. I am particularly eager to serve on the Indian Affairs subcommittee to highlight our successes, as well as the needs we still have, on South Dakota’s nine reservations.”
“It is my hope that these assignments will translate into a robust hearing schedule – including some field hearings in South Dakota,' Noem said. "Through these committees I hope we can pursue an aggressive oversight plan to rein in excessive spending and expose dysfunctional government bureaucracies impacting our land, our energy and our education system.”
At the meeting in Rapid City, Noem told tribal leaders she sees serving on those committees as a real opportunity for progress.
“So hopefully we will have a good transition and make some real progress working with the House and our Senators on the other side of the hill as well, making sure that we address a lot of your concerns,” she said and thanked the tribal leaders for meeting with her.
She encouraged them to voice their concerns and said she had “studied” about their struggles during her years in the S.D. State Legislature and gained some basic knowledge.
“I am a firm believer that what people see with their eyes and they hear with their ears in person, they tend to put it to their heart,” she said. “It’s a lot different to read something from a distance than it is to hear it from the people that are impacted. That’s why for me, I feel very blessed that you’ve come today to share your information with me.”
President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe John Yellow Bird Steele reminded Noem that most of the tribes on the Northern Plains exist because of treaties made with the United States Government.
“We need to go back to the constitution of the United States Government Article VI ‘Treaties are the Supreme Law of the Land.’ I have drafted an Executive Order for Obama to sign to reaffirm our treaties to reinforce those treaty councils,” Yellow Bird Steele said and asked the new congresswoman for help in getting it signed.
“Are all the tribes in agreement on having that Executive Order signed?” she asked.
Steele said he attended a meeting in Bismarck of the National Indian Health Board who are implementing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.
“Right now they have a formula that benefits the smaller tribes more than larger tribes which are mostly in South Dakota, land based tribes. We need some political support somehow to affect, possibly change that whole Indian Health Care Improvement Act,” he said.
“It was passed with Obama’s signature and I personally feel it is not good for our tribes in the loss of funds. It was illegally done by national Indian organizations which do not represent the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Yellow Bird Steele said and asked Noem if she could help “straighten that out.”
Noem said she believed that attaching the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to the Health Care Bill “was extremely unfortunate.”
“Because I think that it is quality legislation that should have stood on its own and passed on its own according to what would have benefited the tribes,” she said.
Noem recapped the recent House vote to repeal the Health Care Reform Bill and said depending on what happens in the Senate, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act will probably pass through separate legislation “because we recognize the importance of getting that act passed.”
“We do want to make sure it is correct. This is the first time that I’ve heard that possibly the formula may need to be talked about and discussed,” she added.
Other tribal leaders voiced concerns that the IHCIA disproportionately helps Urban Indian Health Centers who are given the same level of recognition as reservation Indian Health Services.
“In the old Indian Health Care Improvement Act under Section 2, Urban Indian Health Care Centers had their own appropriations, their own money. In this new one they are allowed to compete for all of our health care monies,” Yellow Bird Steele said and that states rather than the federal government are determining what is or isn’t an Urban Indian Health Care Center.
Hall said he had three concerns -- budgets, roads and the Cobell settlement -- to share with the new congresswoman.
“There are 12 regions in the United States. We are all here for the budget formulation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs 2013 budget. We are very concerned. We’re the largest land based tribes; we have the most trust transactions, the most allotments,” Hall said.
He said tribes in California who many have only five percent of trust transactions have the same number of reality officers as Great Plains tribes, who have 40 percent of trust transactions.
The Cobell settlement includes $1.9 billion to buy up fractionated land interests and Hall expressed concern that the Great Plains Region of the BIA will not have enough staffing to administer the program because other regions are going “to pull these budgets from us.”
“And at the end of the day we will still end up having the dubious honor of being number one for fractionated lands because we aren’t set up for it. Cobell is like the stimulus dollars, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity but I am just fearful that we are not set up to handle it,” Hall said.
Other tribal leaders educated Noem about tribal housing concerns, renewable energy, roads formulas and health care issues.
(Contact Ernestine Chasing Hawk at firstname.lastname@example.org)