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Native Sun News: LaPlante seeks to be Indian Country's voice

The following story was written and reported by Aly Duncan Neely. All content © Native Sun News.

The newly appointed South Dakota Secretary of Tribal Relations, J.R. LaPlante, at a speaking engagement at the SD Peace and Justice Center.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA — On Monday, June 6, the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center hosted a meeting with the new Secretary of Tribal Relations J.R. LaPlante to give local tribal leaders and members a chance to voice concerns of vital importance.

“One of my goals going into this was to create relationships between the tribal governments, State governments and the county commissioners. South Dakota is a state that believes in the authority of the local government,” said LaPlante, appointed by Governor Dennis Daugaard.

The meeting opened with an introduction of Secretary LaPlante followed by a short speech wherein LaPlante outlined his priorities. The floor was immediately opened for the airing of concerns.

Former S.D. Senator Tom Katus said, “We need to get tribal colleges recognized by the Board of Regents. Tribal colleges in South Dakota are behind the curve in comparison to tribal colleges in other states, like Montana.”

LaPlante said in response, “I intend to make higher education part of the equation.” LaPlante went on to say that he would make it a priority to appoint a higher education specialist and lay the groundwork for dialogue. LaPlante said, “Getting recognized by the Board of Regents is something that is overdue.”

A woman in the audience then commented that sacred places like Bear Butte should be protected from infringement by local governments and private landowners.

LaPlante said, “This is an issue that has been ongoing for 150 years. The challenge is to overcome bad history, deceit and animosity and to look at this with clear minds. This is a very emotional issue, but also an important issue.”

LaPlante elaborated, “People in the counties who know each other used to sit down and come to a conclusion. I believe there was a time when people understood each other better. Those days are behind us for some reason. We have to get back to those old values. We need to find common ground.”

A rancher in the audience, Marvin Kammerer mentioned that Mount Rushmore enjoys protection as a national monument so far as to prohibit firearms within 100 yards of the monument. He said, “That’s a man made monument! How about the spiritual dome that comes up out of the earth?” He was referring to Bear Butte. Marvin urged citizens to go to the Meade County meetings and stand against the encroachment of the sacred site.

LaPlante reminded the group that June 2 is the anniversary of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, which ensured that Native Americans could participate in the political process, “I want to encourage you as Indian people and tribal members to participate in these proceedings.”

LaPlante mentioned that one reason why many tribal people may not participate in state and local government meetings is that they are afraid of compromising their tribal sovereignty.

He said, “As Indian people, we only exercise a third of our citizenship rights. We should be participating in all levels of government and be going to these meetings and making ourselves heard. These are open meetings and anybody can attend.”

LaPlante described one such meeting when he was certain that the board started the day with their minds made up, “As the people began coming in and testifying you could see that their whole demeanor changed.”

LaPlante said, “We have to go and speak for ourselves. It’s important that the person who delivers the message is actually in the room and is an Indian person. It doesn’t have to be from tribal leadership, it can be anybody just showing up and expressing your feelings about how important this place is to Native people. I believe in talking circles, passing the feather and giving everybody a chance to be heard.”

One Lakota man in the audience, James Swan, called for a 5 mile buffer zone around Bear Butte. There is a mile and a half buffer zone in place now because of the State Historic Landmark status.

LaPlante said one big obstacle is that there are no tribal people present when governing bodies are deciding on issues that concern the tribes. LaPlante stressed that people should not wait to react after something happens to them but to interact with local government to effect change from within the infrastructure.

“Even if it is just to take up space, let them know you’re there. People are reluctant to get involved in local government or the legislative process, but that’s where these decisions are made,” he said.

LaPlante stated that during one election in Todd County nineteen people ran for office and half of them were Native American. It was a white man who won. Nobody got behind the Indian candidates. “It was sad," he said.

How can this kind of problem be avoided in the future? LaPlante inferred that the people in Rapid City who organized this visit are very good at making things happen. He said, “People are calling, coming in, getting online and organizing. To know the local point of contact is very helpful. We all need each other. If we’re going to move forward we need to learn how to move together. I know your organizations have the motivation.”

Andrew Iron Cloud of Native Impact asked if it would be possible for the Secretary to post his agenda so that he and other Native American community leaders could organize their groups to make a difference.

LaPlante said, emphatically, “Andy, as per your request, I will put my schedule on my website.” He also passed out business cards. LaPlante appeared more than willing to be available to tribal people in the community and to learn more about important issues. He was clearly interested in hearing from tribal community leaders and helping them to get involved in the decision making process.

He stated that he would be interested in consulting with specialists on problematic areas regularly, who would research and report on the needs and concerns of tribal people.

“We have to push forward,” said LaPlante. “I can’t do it without you. I have advisors all around the State, all around the country, where I can say, ‘I don’t know about these issues can you please give me some background on it.’ Let’s not stop this discussion here. Let’s keep it going.”

(Contact Aly Duncan Neely at

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