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South Dakota tribes announce support for Daschle

Leaders of all of South Dakota's tribes announced their endorsement of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) on Thursday in one of the tightest and closely watched Senate races in history.

Daschle, the Senate minority leader, is engaged in a rough battle with Republican John Thune, a former Congressman. Both candidates have made a number of visits to reservations, attending pow-wows, meeting with tribal leaders and pushing for a large turnout among Native voters.

But after months of campaigning, only Daschle can claim the support of all nine tribes. "I'm honored to receive the endorsement from every tribal chairman in our great state," he said yesterday.

Tribal leaders praised the Democratic candidate for his commitment to Indian issues, particularly his attempts to increase the budget for the Indian Health Service. They said he would continue to advocate for tribes in the state.

Charles Colombe, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, is a registered independent, voted for President George W. Bush in 2000 and has donated money to Republican candidates. But he said he was endorsing Daschle because he "gets things done for Indians in South Dakota."

Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, also praised Daschle's record and criticized Thune for having little impact on Indian issues. "Even after six years in Congress, Mr. Thune simply does not understand how tribes and the federal government should work together to improve life in Indian Country," he said.

Frazier took particular offense with a letter Thune wrote earlier this year regarding treaty rights. In it, Thune embraced government-to-government consultation but said acts of Congress "supersede" treaties between Indian nations and the United States.

Thune has made a concerted effort to reach out to Indian Country, having lost the 2002 Senate race to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) by just 524 votes. Johnson was pushed over the top due to the support of the overwhelming majority of Indian voters on reservations.

Thune has acknowledged not recognizing the importance of the Indian vote and is backed by Russell Means, a well-known activist and actor who is currently running for president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He also counts supporters like Bruce Whalen, a member of the Oglala tribe and president of the Shannon County Republican Party.

Whalen shares Thune's view that Daschle hasn't delivered to Indian Country and instead promotes a relationship of dependence, rather than self-reliance, on the federal government. He says Daschle's record on treaty rights is abysmal, citing a still-controversial bill that transferred thousands of acres of treaty land along the Missouri River to the state.

"I've talked to hundreds and hundreds of people here and they are disappointed -- that's probably not even the best term -- they are angry with Tom Daschle," Whalen said.

Daschle also opposed a bill to return the Black Hills to the Sioux Nation and clemency for Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist who is serving two life sentences for the murders of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1976. Some tribes have filed lawsuits over the Missouri River land, which contains sacred sites and burial grounds. Other tribes, however, benefited from the land exchange.

The Daschle campaign has made an effort to highlight other areas of his Indian record, such as increased funding for Bureau of Indian Affairs schools and for tribal colleges, legislation to compensate tribes for land lost to the Missouri River and efforts to increase economic development on reservations. He recently led the fight to block an appeals court nominee that tribes all over the country opposed and has criticized the Bush administration for reorganizing the BIA and expanding the Office of Special Trustee against tribal opposition.

With the election less than two weeks away, polls show Daschle with a narrow lead. But Thune has closed the gap in recent months and the campaign has turned increasingly heated as November 2 nears.

Among the few Indians contacted for polls, the overwhelming majority say they support Daschle. In the 2002 Senate election and the special U.S. House election held in June, reservation voters chose Democrats over Republicans by margins as high as 9 to 1.

American Indians and Alaska Natives make up about 8 percent of the state's population. The numbers are great enough to sway close elections but Native voters aren't expected to tip the state from sending its electoral votes to George Bush, who won the state in 2000.

Relevant Links:
Sen. Tom Daschle -
Tom Daschle, campaign site -
John Thune for US Senate -