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Republican Thune to meet with tribal leaders

A month after defeating Democrat Sen. Tom Daschle in the most expensive Senate race in history, Republican John Thune will meet with representatives of South Dakota's nine tribes.

Tribal leaders unanimously endorsed Daschle in a heated matchup that saw a record Indian turnout. The reservation vote, however, wasn't enough to re-elect the outgoing Senate minority leader, considered one of Indian Country's biggest advocates.

But as Thune basks in the national spotlight for his Election Day upset, tribes are eager to find out where they stand. A meeting arranged by The Native Voice, an independent, Indian-owned newspaper in South Dakota, should help.

"We want to know that he will be there for us, that he will meet with us, will listen to our concerns, and will act on our behalf in Washington," said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

The meeting will be hosted and moderated by Frank J. King, III and Lise Balk King, the husband and wife team that owns and publishes the newspaper. Lise King said Thune was eager to talk with tribal leaders and that he won't hold "grudges" because they supported his rival.

Also joining the talks is Gov. Mike Rounds (R), who has earned praise for reaching out to tribes early in his term. "The governor believes in working together with the tribes to get things done," said his press secretary Mark Johnston.

The December 16 meeting will take place at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. Unlike a session with Daschle and other Democrats that was arranged by Tim Giago, a former newspaper publisher, the media will be allowed to attend opening remarks and a closing press conference.

South Dakota was a hotbed of activity in the months prior to the November 2 election. Members of both parties, as well as non-partisan groups like the National Congress of American Indians, focused on the state's significant Indian presence. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Native Americans make up about 8 percent of the population.

Thune made an effort to campaign on reservations after he lost the 2002 Senate race to Democrat Tim Johnson by just 524 votes. On every reservation, Indians overwhelmingly backed Johnson, which sent him over the top.

The effort did help the former Congressman, who increased his Indian support in critical places like the Pine Ridge Reservation. Still, Daschle got the lion's share of the Indian vote.

But Indian Republicans believe that will change in future years. Bruce Whalen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and chairman of the Shannon County Republican Party, is reaching out to reservation residents.

"We have a different game strategy," Whalen said in a recent interview. "We're trying to have a relationship with the people. to show that the Republican values like up with Lakota values more closely than the Democrats."

One complaint about Thune was that he was invisible on tribal issues during his six years in the House. During that time, he sponsored or co-sponsored just three Indian-related bills.

Thune said he will pay more attention to tribal concerns once he arrives in the 109th Congress. His victory has made him popular and could lead to high-profile positions on key committees.

South Dakota tribes have already found an advocate in Democrat Rep. Stephanie Herseth, who won a second election this year with the help of Indian voters. She sits on the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian issues.

Sen. Tim Johnson, also a Democrat, is retaining his seas on the Indian Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee. He has used his posts there to advocate for trust reform and more funding for Indian programs.

Relevant Links:
Native Voice -
John Thune -

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