Tim Giago: Cloaks and daggers within the Indian Health Service

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

I had what I thought was a simple request of the Indian Health Service. To my chagrin I discovered that nothing is simple when it comes to the federal bureaucracy.

My request centered on the information provided to the business people of Rapid City in the monthly report by the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce. The report lists the different businesses, hospital, Ellsworth Air Force Base, and other entities that form the economic indicators of money spent in the city.

I had never seen figures in the report from the Indian Health Service Hospital in Rapid City. The hospital is known locally as the Sioux San. It started many years ago as a boarding school for Indian students and during the tuberculosis epidemic in the 1930s and 1940s; it became a TB Sanitarium, thus the present day name, Sioux San.

At first I believed it was the Chamber of Commerce that was remiss in not including the financial data from the Sioux San. When I inquired to members of the Chamber I was told that the Indian Health Service that oversees the San would not provide the figures.

A simple oversight I presumed. Not so. My request that the financial contributions of the San be provided to the Chamber of Commerce for their monthly report fell on the ears of entrenched bureaucrats. Why did I think these numbers should be included in the monthly Chamber report? Although there are several small businesses owned and operated by Native Americans in the city, the one business that contributes millions to the economic well-being of the city is the Sioux San.

The San purchases dry goods, dairy products and produce supplies locally for its kitchen; it outsources medical care that it is unable to provide, to local doctors and to the Rapid City Regional Hospital. It spends millions on dental and eye care services. It spends money on the power sources that keep it running like the Black Hills Electrical Power Company and the Montana-Dakota Utility Company (natural gas). Road maintenance and the upkeep of the hospital facilities are usually contracted to local businesses. The payroll to the doctors and support staff at the San runs to about $16 million annually and most of it is spent locally.

Many local businesses and citizens believe that all Native Americans are a drain on the financial resources of the city and state. There is no agency that provides them with the information about how much money organizations like the Sioux San and the tribal governments that permeate this region spend in Rapid City. If the truth be known, the economic contributions to Rapid City by the San and the surrounding tribes would amount to money in the millions of dollars.

Rapid City is also home to the largest campus of the Oglala Lakota College with nearly one thousand students. OLC contributes millions to the economic well-being of the city.

Therefore it came as a complete surprise to me when my request that the Indian Health Service provide financial figures to the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce in order to show that Native Americans were contributing millions to the economic growth of the city fell on closed ears.

I first got a letter from Heather H. McClane informing me that she was the Aberdeen Area FOIA Coordinator. Freedom of Information Act Coordinator? I had no idea I had entered the hallowed grounds of government secrecy. Ms. McClane went through the usual government palaver about what I would have to supply to her in order to get the information I requested. One paragraph from McClane read, “In addition to have the potential to be very costly in terms of fees “all the records you have on . . . . .” types of requests tend to require a great deal of research time, even if few or no records are found on the subject you are interested in.”

Oh yes, I forgot that my original request was sent to a Courtney Mallon, Acting Public Affairs Liaison with the Aberdeen Area Indian Health Services who wrote on her forwarding letter to Ms. McClane, “The Area has received a request for information from Tim Giago for information on the financial figures for Sioux San hospital. Although Mr. Giago is a member of the media, this request does not fall into the category of a Public Affairs inquiry.”

Frustrated I responded to Heather with, “You have got to be kidding me. My request is so simple and so direct that a trained chimpanzee would know exactly why I am asking it. The Indian Health Service has become like one of the agencies of the old Soviet Union. Could you not see that all I am asking is for the monetary figures to give to the Chamber of Commerce to show that Native American agencies contribute greatly to the local economy? This would be good for all of the Indians living in Rapid City; it will show that we are not all on welfare or worse (things we hear again and again in this city).”

I concluded with, “I am sadly disappointed in your agency’s lack of foresight and total lack of humanity. I will not waste any more time quibbling with brain-dead bureaucrats. Is it any wonder why Native Americans are still forced to live in the 19th Century?”

If President Barack Obama ran on a ticket based on transparency, it seems that someone forgot to pass the word on to the Indian Health Service.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today newspaper. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991.

More from Tim Giago:
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Tim Giago: The 136th anniversary of the Battle at Little Big Horn (6/25)
Tim Giago: Racism in Indian mascots and that dreaded 'R-word' (6/18)
Tim Giago: 'Divide and rule' was unwritten goal of Indian agents (6/4)
Tim Giago: How the Grouchy Gourmet broke down racial barriers (5/28)
Tim Giago: Touching an eagle feather to Warren Buffett's brow (5/21)
Tim Giago: 'Beer sniffing' reporters descend upon Pine Ridge (5/14)
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Tim Giago: Tatanka Iyotanka was a pure Lakota traditionalist (4/30)
Tim Giago: Rocky history of Natives and the Mormon Church (4/23)
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