Indian Education is No Party (issue): The Quest for Legislative Leadership

A June article in Indian Country Today Media Network listed 7 bills aimed to improve education opportunities for American Indians.  However, a more recent article published on 11/08/15 by the Dakota Free Press pointed out that none of South Dakota’s Republican House or Senate members had signed on to any of the seven bills to improve education in Indian Country.  At first, this seems predictably sad. But, can it really be possible that Republicans are all against improving Indian education?

(hint:  Nope. There are a number of Republicans who author, sponsor, and vote for Native-oriented legislation…see below).

In South Dakota, the voting rate of Native Americans is not very high.  There is very little incentive to cater to the needs of Indian Country.  And, as we all know, a congressperson is better served in their goal of re-election by pandering to potential voters than doing the right thing.  But, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care, it just means they don’t have to actually do anything!

It may not be about caring so much as it is about methods, ideology, and priorities.  Each of their offices devotes at least some staff time to Native American affairs in one way or another.  In fact, I have met with several. However, most of the South Dakota contingent are party line voters with little independence… they follow the party line.  Serving Indian Country’s interests at the federal level is difficult when you are steeped in state’s rights, and committed to no budget increases without matching cuts (keeping in mind that they call restoring sequester funding an increase!).  To be fair, according to his website, Senator Mike Rounds partnered with New Mexico’s Senator Udall on an amendment to an Indian Education bill, but it was aimed at more studies and ultimately more local (less federal) control.  The argument is usually that more study would allow for any resources to be targeted, and the local control would protect from a one-size fits all federal level interventions.  On the flip side, it stalls resources to Indian Country and puts some of the responsibility on State governments who are not mandated to pursue potential interventions, targeted and data-based as they may be.  So, at best we end up with block-grant types of programs that can languish if state politics are not favorable (think Medicaid and Obamacare).

The State’s rights issue is particularly thorny for federally recognized Tribes.  States have little jurisdiction in most areas and even less fiduciary responsibility.  Senator Rounds’ efforts could result in a punt back to a potentially apathetic state legislature rather than positive action in Indian Country.  Or, they can result in more effective resources and promising interventions.  No way to tell… unless we judge the present on past legislative behavior. Oh, oh!

What is clear is that education in many parts of Indian Country is well below the national average, and below that of all other major demographic groups.  That was apparent from the Native youth talking at the White House Tribal Nations Conference last week about their public school experiences.  It was so sad to see these challenges being placed on such promising young youth.

It is equally clear that without clear legislative leadership, not much can change, and I do not view a proposed republican amendment to a democratic bill a signal of commitment as much as simply politics.  I applaud Senator Rounds for working with Senator Udall on this little amendment.  But, I would challenge all of the South Dakota representatives to partner with people like Senator Udall on the broader range of issues he works with, not just the ones that are low-cost and politically expedient.  I have personally worked with Senator Udall’s staff and, even if we do not see eye-to-eye on every little thing, I deeply respect his commitment to addressing many Native issues.  Even if it is distasteful  to reach across the aisle, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is bipartisan and always looking for targeted support.  I have admired the commitment of Senators Barrasso and Murkowski, both Republicans, to Native issues. Authoring a bill and/or co-sponsoring a few pointed in the right direction would be a much more effective demonstration of a South Dakota politician’s commitment to equality and opportunity for all citizens. But, even our senior Senator has been largely silent in issues of Indian education and health access in South Dakota.

South Dakota has fallen woefully behind in serving its Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota constituents.  The poverty and inequities in medicine, education, social justice, and environmental issues have been well documented challenges to the state for decades.  While strategies for solutions may differ with respect to a political party, the issues themselves transcend party boundaries.  You can’t feed a hungry child ideologies nor can ideologies treat my grandfather’s cancer. These are human issues.

If the article by Dakota Free Press is correct, not much has changed in South Dakota with respect to policies aimed towards Native communities.  I urge the South Dakota contingent to constructively, and publicly commit to action (not words) on issues important to their Native constituencies through sound public policy and high profile leadership. The educational system needs improvement, whether it’s within Bureau of Indian Education schools or in public schools. In the meantime, it is too divisive and quite frankly, plays into a familiar narrative, to demonize based upon party affiliation, no matter how correlated.  Instead, lets focus on actions.  Indian Country Today Media Network was correct in June: Those were the numbers.  But we can, and should aspire toward more, which is easy to do when the beginning number is zero!

All of that said, we as Native Americans (especially in South Dakota, sorry if I sound biased), NEED TO VOTE and need to take action. In a democracy, power and participation are related (sadly, though, not as well as it should be these days). We have a long history of being lied to, misled, or just rolled over. It is easy to step back. But, voting is the most realistic way to insure the possibility that we are both heard and addressed with actual policy…at least until we get our land and mineral rights back to fund our own Superpac!

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