Tim Giago. Photo by Talli
South Dakota could be a political hotbed in 2014
Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
Over the years I have encouraged Native American tribal governments to move their elections to coincide with the national elections in November.
I believed this to be very important for two reasons: First of all the Native American vote has been terribly overlooked by candidates seeking national office for too many years. Second, tribal elections usually draw many more voters than national elections because the candidates are local and whether they are elected or not has a powerful impact upon tribal individuals and on the tribal government itself. If the elections for a national candidate fell on the same day as the local tribal elections the turnout would be much heavier and so the Native American voters would have a marked influence upon the national elections.
This theory came into play dramatically in 2002 when John Thune, a Republican, ran against Tim Johnson, a Democrat, in an at-large House seat in South Dakota. Johnson won the election by a mere 524 votes. As the counting of votes neared its end Thune was clearly leading and his staff was about ready to uncork the champagne bottles.
The vote counting continued late into the night and as is the usual case in South Dakota, the votes from the western Indian reservations were among the last to be counted. When the votes from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations were tallied, Tim Johnson eased ahead and took the election.
Johnson had campaigned heavily in Indian Country and he was (and still is) deeply respected by the Native Americans of the state. Thune did little campaigning to attract the Indian vote. The outcome proved that the Indian vote can, and did, make a huge difference.
When a lot of outside of the state money flooded South Dakota heavily favoring the Republican candidate John Thune against Senator Tom Daschle in the 2004 election for the United States Senate, it was one of the first times that huge donations from out-of-state came into play to unseat a sitting United States Senator. On election night the vote counting always begins in the eastern counties and works its way west. Once again Thune led the race, but the reservation votes had not yet been compiled. Tribal elections usually draw 60 to 70 percent of the eligible voters, but this time around only 50 percent of the voters turned out. Daschle lost by a 4,508 votes.
In this Oglala Sioux Tribal election Cecilia Fire Thunder became the first woman ever elected to serve as President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Some election officials believed that the turnout was smaller than usual because a woman was running for the tribe’s highest office. Fire Thunder won the election but ended up being impeached by the Tribal Council for her stand on the right of a woman to have an abortion. Fire Thunder has been a healthcare provider for Indian women for years and she saw the need for Indian women to have the same opportunities for healthcare as women everywhere. She alluded to the fact that she might invite Planned Parenthood to open a clinic on the reservation. This did not sit well with the tribal council.
With the lower voter turnout for this election in 2004 Daschle’s chances to beat the big money corporations pouring money to defeat him was too much to overcome. Although he handily won the majority votes on the Indian reservations, the biggest reservation, Pine Ridge, failed to have the turnout he needed to overcome Thune.
In the upcoming 2014 elections nearly all of the candidates for senate and the House of Representatives are well aware of the impact the Indian reservations could have upon their prospects.
Incumbent Kristi Noem has been challenged by a western South Dakota woman, a military veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, named Corinna Robinson, for her House Seat. Tim Johnson is retiring from the Senate so his seat is up for grabs. The principal candidates are former South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, a Republican, former U. S. Senator Larry Pressler, an Independent, Rick Weiland, a Democrat, and Gordie Howie, another Independent. This is an interesting race because it is hard to determine which candidate will be hurt by the Independents or if the Independents have the capability of actually winning. The Republican Rounds could be the candidate hurt the most by Larry Pressler, a former Republican. Pressler may garner many of the Republican votes Rounds needs to defeat the rapidly rising Weiland.
This November also happens to be a year when the Pine Ridge Reservation will also be holding elections for the Tribal Council and for the office of the president. The candidates for the office of president have not made their announcements yet, but because of the heated political atmosphere on the reservation surrounding the legalization of the sale of alcohol within the boundaries of the reservation this election is generating a lot of interest and could be contentious. This means that the turnout will be very large and the candidates running for the House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate know this.
For the first time in the history of national elections in South Dakota an Indian college has teamed with an Indian newspaper to sponsor a debate between the senate candidates. United Tribes Technical College’s Rapid City Campus will host the debate and Native Sun News, also of Rapid City, will sponsor it. For the first time the candidates will be asked questions by Native Americans they are never asked at other debates. So far all of the candidates have agreed to participate in the debate except for Rounds.
This will be one of the most interesting elections in South Dakota’s history.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of
1991. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org