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Native Sun News: Q&A with Ryan Wilson, Oglala Sioux candidate

The following story was written and reported by Native Sun News Staff. All content © Native Sun News.

Longtime youth advocate Ryan Wilson, “Tatanka Wasaka,” announced his candidacy for Oglala Sioux Tribe president at the end of August. PHOTO COURTESY/RYAN WILSON

Wilson responds to NSN questions
By Native Sun News Staff

PINE RIDGE — A longtime youth advocate announced his candidacy for Oglala Sioux Tribe president in late August.

Ryan Wilson of the Wilson Tiospaye of the Pine Ridge Reservation’s Number 4 community is the son of the late Roberta Wilson and stepson of Crawford White Sr., who is Northern Arapaho. He is the grandson of the late George Wilson Sr., a World War II veteran, and the late Mary Dixon.

Along with his companion, Vonnie Alberts, Wilson is the proud father of five children, including four stepchildren and one takoja.

He was bestowed with the Lakota name “Tatanka Wasaka” by his hunka grandparents, Matt and Nellie Two Bulls, shortly before Matt’s passing in 1996. Wilson’s grandparents chose the name because of his many years of dedication to Indian youth and leadership.

Wilson’s experiences are deeply rooted in his mother’s love for education and love for her people. He is also heavily influenced by his stepfather’s ceremonial discipline.

His mother, a lifelong educator, was instrumental in the early days of the tribal college movement and worked tirelessly to secure passage of the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act of 1978 during the formative years of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. His mother believed deeply in tribal colleges, especially the launching of Oglala Lakota College, where she served as adjunct faculty.

His stepfather is a decorated Vietnam War combat veteran and ceremonial leader of the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming and engendered in Wilson a great sense of respect and adherence to traditional practices, core beliefs and values.

Through these beliefs and teachings, Wilson has excelled as a national leader in the fields of education, Native youth advocacy and language revitalization. He chaired Indian country’s oldest and largest Native youth organization, the Northwest Indian Youth Conference, for many years. He was a catalyst in the founding of the National Congress of American Indians Youth Commission and longtime organizer of the National Indian Education Association’s youth day.

Wilson is a recognized leader in the Native American Boys and Girls Club movement and has advocated tirelessly for the expansion of Native clubs and greater resources to help fund the movement.

In 2005, then-first lady Laura Bush invited him to participate in the inaugural White House Conference on Helping America’s Youth.

Whether as a court advocate, drug and alcohol counselor, cultural director, GED instructor or executive director of Native American Boys and Girls Clubs, Wilson has devoted his entire professional career to the advancement and development of Native youth.

Native Sun News: The biggest problem on Pine Ridge is unemployment. What would you do to bring jobs to the reservation?

Wilson: Jobs will only come to Pine Ridge under certain circumstances that create an environment for development and economic revitalization. My campaign has released a 10-point plan for strengthening the government of the Oglala Sioux Tribe for the purpose of creating meaningful economic development. Highlights of this 10-point plan call for the creation of new institutions to facilitate private investment, regulate private sector operations and protect private sector investment. These proposed institutions include regulatory commissions for securities/finances, utilities, an independent Oglala Sioux tribal enterprise, Department of Commerce, re-establishment of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Planning Center, Oglala Sioux Tribe Foundation and Oglala Sioux Tribe Education Foundation.

The plan calls for full, unequivocal separation of powers, particularly the need for an independent OST court system. For the OST Council and Executive Committee, it calls for improving on the policy management process, deepening functional performance monitoring and evaluation of capacity, codifying and practicing rules of procedure, systems and processes and creating consultative and consensus-building structures, transparency and accountability in decision-making.

In the context of local and sustainable development, the concern of the quality of Oglala Sioux Tribe activities has been expressed. Current Oglala Sioux Tribe policies point to the fact that the tribe must effectively play the role of a catalyst, facilitator and a partner for good governance and development. The Oglala Sioux Tribe needs to provide both economic and legitimate political leadership to represent and act as an intermediary between different forces of the greater society and local communities on Pine Ridge. A Wilson presidency will provide the leadership needed to move us forward.

An anti-corruption initiative is a key piece of the plan, and calls for the establishment of an “OST Serious Fraud” office. Unless the scourge of corruption is combated effectively, poverty-reduction strategies and economic revitalization will not be sustainable.

Full surveillance over tribal policies, prioritizing the transparency of government accounts, the effectiveness of tribal/public resource management and the stability and transparency of the economic and regulatory environment for private-sector activity will be a top priority.

Federal interaction impacts economic activity on the Pine Ridge more than anything. Components of successful economic development that are impacted by our federal relationship include the following: building effective government structures, improving the health of OST members, constructing an adequate physical and technological infrastructure, creating stronger tribal/commercial codes and laws that are supportive of a business climate, providing social programs for OST members, providing educational opportunities, reconsolidating land, utilizing and preserving natural resources, protecting language and other cultural resources and reclaiming tribal jurisdiction.

For this reason I am proposing the establishment of a national office of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in Washington, D.C. This office will provide much-needed organization in our federal approach and will strengthen our credibility in D.C. It will eliminate unnecessary travel and maximize value and impact when travel is needed. It will harmonize our lobbying efforts and sharpen our messaging and focus.

The president and OST Council have many tools at their disposal for creating a better business climate. A Wilson presidency will begin immediately to utilize these tools, and within 30 days of taking office will have a comprehensive poverty-reduction/economic revitalization plan based on a participatory-consultative process ready for OST Council review and approval.

A Wilson presidency will not wait for the OST Council to take action, but rather will advance proposals, codes, legislation and action plans to the OST Council immediately after taking office.

A Wilson presidency will lead the Oglala Sioux Tribe out of the poverty trap of being a grant-based economy dependent exclusively on federal programs and dwindling appropriations. A Wilson presidency will lead to a balanced economy that opens stores and establishes a service sector. We will support home-based businesses, protect our markets and alleviate the practice of allowing our precious few dollars to instantly leave Pine Ridge without turning over.

We will also vigorously pursue South Dakota state tax dollars and economic investment from these dollars as well as a “Buy Lakota” campaign aimed at capturing our fair market share of the Black Hills tourism industry. Both our U.S. congressional delegation and our state representatives in the South Dakota Legislature will receive legislative packages outlining a legislative agenda that will advance opportunities economically for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

We will further commit to working with the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council and Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association on a Northern Plains Economic Alliance. The long-held practice of the Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Education and Oglala Sioux tribal programs and other entities using almost exclusively non-Indian vendors will receive a spirited challenge from a Wilson administration.

The “Buy Indian Act” and our TERO (Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance) laws will gain a reinvigorated commitment from my administration, and we will leave no stone unturned in developing new strategies and techniques in identifying a procurement market and developing the supply for this market. If we want businesses, then we have to mean business and we can no longer move at a horse-and-buggy pace when the rest of Indian country – and the world for that matter – are moving at lightning speed in addressing economic needs.

Native Sun News: Another major problem is housing. What would you do to alleviate the housing shortage?

Wilson: With the recent grand opening of the Johnson Holy Rock tribal housing administration building we are all reminded of how crucial housing is to individuals, tiospaye, communities, districts and the entire Oglala Sioux Tribe. Lack of housing and lack of housing opportunities are paramount issues that will determine what kind of reservation Pine Ridge becomes and what kind of future our children and youth will have in deciding to raise families here.

Current federal appropriations that reach the OST through our housing authority will never come close to meeting our housing needs. This will not change, especially under the current political climate in Congress. The Indian Housing Block Grant Program authorized under the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (of 1996) should never be viewed as our pathway to sufficient housing. While it is a crucial piece of our housing portfolio and we need to protect and grow our allocation, other housing alternatives are an imperative.

Federal programs such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Indian housing program, the U.S. Veterans Administration Home Loan Program and supportive housing program, “Housing Choice,” Section 8 vouchers are helpful, but will not get us to our goal of affordable quality housing for all. Government and private partnerships such as the Wells Fargo HUD (Housing and Urban Development) 184 Loan program, nonprofit and community-based program efforts are vital, but even with all of these programs combined we will be thousands of housing units short of our demand.

Ultimately, we have to take a multifaceted approach to solving our housing needs that blends government and private investment. Our single largest source of collateral is land, and we should be willing to leverage small parcels of land to private developers who are willing to go into business with the OST in developing rental units, apartments, duplexes and even dorms for our Oglala Lakota College students.

Professional housing units/neighborhoods such as the IHS housing behind the hospital are models of what new neighborhoods and communities could look like. With hundreds of educators, BIA, IHS and OST employees living in Rapid City and closer border towns, it is self-evident that we are exporting housing rental opportunities that should be developed right here in Pine Ridge. We damage the economy of Pine Ridge by not creating rental units for professionals, and we damage our ability to keep our local talent and recruit human capital when we don’t create housing opportunities.

A Wilson administration will advance opportunities for professional rental units, but this is only one facet of a complicated housing dilemma. We will also pursue a public and private partnership to establish once and for all a housing manufacturing plant on the Pine Ridge. When we look at the overall debt of the tribe we have to understand that there is good debt – one that retains marketable assets – and bad debt. We as a tribe should be willing to take on and invest in a major acceleration of our own internal capacity to produce quality, energy efficient housing units. This capability will not only be good for short-term debt, but will pay for itself in a relatively short period of time. Despite our current situation of being the poorest region in the nation, we have plenty of tribal members who are on the current housing list or would like to be and are willing and able to take on a mortgage.

Congress recently passed the HEARTH Act which allows the leasing of restricted tribal lands for public, religious, educational, recreational, residential and business purposes without prior express approval of the secretary of Interior. With greater flexibility and our creative energies, a Wilson administration will move with purpose to identify areas for the development of new communities for the Oglala Lakota. We will tackle the arduous task of EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) approval, infrastructure and actually plan communities and neighborhoods with housing, business and recreational zones. This work will be done without compromising expansion of existing communities and their housing plans or housing unit development on individual/family land. We intend to advance both, and will show the resolve to do so.

My administration will assist our housing authority in creating a one-stop shop for housing needs. Essentially, OST members will have an advocate that will walk them through the system of leases, home sites, water and electrical hookups, purchasing options, zoning, transport and any other issues in acquiring a home, including financing options.

The housing crises also begs the question of how are we taking care of the existing units and the neighborhoods/communities that they are in? We all know the truth of this difficult question is that we can do a lot better, and that most basic home maintenance and repair issues do not require intervention by our housing authority, nor does yard maintenance and landscaping. A Wilson administration will launch a Pine Ridge beautification initiative and work closely with the OST Council, district representatives and traditional leadership to develop basic cleanup standards, ordinances and safety measures to ensure that we are creating with our current tools the best possible living conditions for our children and elders.

Native Sun News: The Prairie Wind Casino needs to increase the revenues from gambling. Many Oglala thought it was a bad idea to build a casino at Martin. The casino most have been pushing for is the one that would bring the tribe the most income, and that would be a casino at Interior. Do you see that ever happening?

Wilson: Tribes across Indian country are operating multiple casinos simultaneously; one tribe in eastern Oklahoma is operating 13 casinos right now. This should not even be a debate. I support it on three fronts: first, the Interior market, or I-90 market, does not compete with the Prairie Wind or the Martin sites; secondly, it’s important to our economy that we capture non-Indian gaming dollars; and finally, we aren’t limited through our state gaming compact on Class II machines, so why would we want to limit ourselves to locations that are less than optimal to offer Class II gaming opportunities?

Before the new Prairie Wind Casino & Hotel was built the casino was operated out of a shell building, not sexy or glamorous but very effective in profit margin. Furthermore, the OST has not produced any market-based evidence that the new facility has increased revenue or grown substantially more outside gaming patrons. The point here is that we don’t necessarily have to build a fancy multi-million dollar facility in Interior to have a successful gaming operation. Developing a modest facility, possibly steel or a shell building, is a very reachable goal.

A new facility/gaming operation in Interior should not be viewed as incompatible with supporting continued operations at Prairie Wind and East Winds casinos. To do so misinterprets the need to diversify our gaming operations for the purpose of enlarging our market share.

A Wilson administration will support growth and expansion at Prairie Wind primarily in the aspect of the hospitality sector. The hotel has quietly grown in achieving consistent capacity, especially during the summer months, serving as the primary tourist stay over in Pine Ridge. They can expand by adding cabins for the tourism season and by having special promotions in the fall and winter. Special projects promoting ancillary activities – reservation tours, golf, horse rides and so forth – should be explored and supported. The hotel has steadily grown as a venue for meeting space and conferences, and there is a need to expand the facilities to meet the demand for better conference facilities.

The employment opportunities at both the casino and hotel are providing a cadre of tribal members with very important transferable skills and valuable work experience. Through these jobs, tribal members are establishing credit and building independent families; some are gaining highly coveted managerial skills. With each passing day, the OST is learning more about the hospitality industry and the potential for tourism in our homelands.

The revenue-sharing arrangement with the OST/districts needs to be reviewed in the context of Shakopee loan repayment needs, facility upgrade needs and staffing needs. I cannot stress enough the need to pay down our loan to the Shakopee. We are kicking the can down the road and avoiding our responsibility in leaving our children a debt-free Oglala Lakota Nation. Gaming revenue should not be confused as gaming profit when the operations and existing debt expenses are very real and failure to pay these expenses has very real consequences. Regardless of blame, the loan and repayment responsibility belongs to all of us and courageous leadership, strong leadership will deal appropriately with this loan in an open and honest manner. Finally, my administration will pursue the purchase of land closer to Interstate 90 and Rapid City in an effort to reclaim portions of our treaty territory. We will petition the secretary of Interior to place this land in trust, and we will take full advantage of economic opportunities afforded by being close to a critical mass of consumers.

Native Sun News: A visitor Center and a museum at Wounded Knee would bring many tourism dollars to the reservation economy. Senator Tim Johnson says he could raise the money to build it through the National Park Service. Would you recommend this for economic development?

Wilson: Development at or near the Wounded Knee site has been resisted by the community and stakeholders for many decades. As a tribe, we have rejected the notion of profiting from the tragedy of Wounded Knee. My administration will share this viewpoint and honor the wishes of the community. There is a paradox at Wounded Knee: on one hand our Lakota values and respect for the lives of those lost does not allow us to see the site as an economic development opportunity. Paradoxically, no matter the belief of the site being hallowed ground, a vibrant industry exists there for Lakota artisans. Regardless of development support from the tribe, a tourism market exists and is informally regulated by local artists. These artists vigorously defend their ownership of this market.

The so-called official museum of Wounded Knee in Wall recently burned down. I view this event as an opportunity for us as Lakota to reclaim our story and fight any attempt from non-Indians to appropriate our story and our history. We need a visitor center or interpreter center for the Wounded Knee story. The community should be given right to first consideration for placement of such a center. If they chose to not pursue such a venture, then we should build it in an appropriate location in close proximity to the Big Foot Trail. The need for an interpretive center does not arise out of economic pursuits or to enhance our tourism, but to serve as an education tool and for the Lakota to take full ownership of telling our story, our history from our Lakota perspective. Many Lakota children, youth and young adults are unfamiliar with Wounded Knee and the escalating events that led to this tragedy, and would benefit from an interpretive center. I can predict this would be used in classrooms across Pine Ridge as a tool for expeditiary, experiential and contextual learning. As for the burial site itself we should agree on a buffer zone from vendors at the immediate site and designate an entity to keep the area clean and free from debris and provide upkeep of the graves. For many years, we have not known what to do with the site or how to treat it, and yet people from all over the world flock to Wounded Knee. Perhaps it’s time all stakeholders sit down and seek common ground and mutual cooperation.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe needs in general a world-class Lakota heritage center/museum. We need a facility that is state of the art so that we can receive repatriated articles and visiting exhibits from the National Museum of the American Indian and other special collections throughout our country and the world. Our children need to see the greatness of the Oglala Lakota and they need to see their heroes portrayed in a positive light, both ancestral and contemporary heroes.

Beyond Wounded Knee, the Battle of Greasy Grass, Rosebud battle, the Fetterman Fight, the closing of the Bozeman Trail and events leading to the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties are rich, vital moments and events in our histories that must be told, shared and owned by the Lakota, and in particular the Oglala Lakota. The Oglala Sioux park system, not the National Park Service, will be the jurisdictional entity for historic sites, sacred sites, points of interest, burial grounds and Lakota-appropriate signage throughout the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In respect to involvement from the National Park Service and our senator, Tim Johnson, the Wilson administration will work with Senator Johnson to kill the practice of the National Park and Forest services of allowing vendors to sell Asian-made Native American knockoff products in their gift shops across the country in direct violation of the Native American (Indian) Arts and Crafts Act (of 1990), which is federal law.

We will work to open up new markets and negotiate with the National Park and Forest services to create venues for genuine Lakota arts and cultural products. The Wilson administration will move with zeal to create these opportunities and believes up to 100 Oglala families will benefit from these new markets. We will also confront the sad situation at Crazy Horse Memorial, where imported Asian jewelry is sold and Navajo vendors have virtually pushed out altogether Lakota artisans. To some, these issues may seem trivial, but to the Oglala families who make their livelihood from their cultural talents it’s a difference between putting food on the table, clothes on your children, keeping the lights on at home and gas in your tank. These families need an advocate, and they will have one in a Wilson administration.

Finally, it’s time for Senator Johnson, who is a combat veteran, and his colleagues in the U.S. Senate to advance a “Sense of the United States Senate Resolution,” stripping the 7th Cavalry soldiers who participated in the Wounded Knee massacre of their Congressional Medals of Honor. Until this is done and a full apology is made, Wounded Knee will continue to be a stain on the sole of this country.

Native Sun News: There will be a push to drill for oil and natural gas in the next few years. What would be your approach to doing this?

Wilson: The first thing a Wilson administration will do is review with legal assistance our environmental codes and how drilling would interface with existing codes, including tax codes on mineral extraction and how we can strengthen our codes to protect both our environment and potential natural-resource reserves. We need to review these codes before any potential development, even if it is outside our reservation boundaries.

My administration will focus on informing OST members and acquiring the best possible scientific information so that our members can make informed decisions. Part of the challenge confronting us as a tribe is that we do not have a real energy policy. The OST will have one when I am elected; this will not be focused on the extraction of minerals but rather renewable energy and our use of energy.

I have had the opportunity to witness the oil activity in what is currently considered the center of drilling in North America – the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in western North Dakota. The Three Affiliated Tribes have the Bakken oil formation directly under their reservation. Horizontal drilling at depths of two miles deep extract the oil using a method called hydraulic fracking. This method requires large amounts of water. Chemicals are mixed with water, then heated at extremely hot temperatures to break up the rocks to release the oil. The water then needs to be disposed of after being highly contaminated.

Besides the fact that we do not possess the large volume of water needed for this extraction, we cannot support the volume of truck activity on our roads. We simply do not have the infrastructure for major drilling activity. Any tribal member who has interest in this issue should travel to Fort Berthold and see firsthand the pros and cons. Regardless of individual beliefs and perspectives, the ultimate question is: Are we willing to compromise our landscape, water, roads, air quality and environment for oil exploration?

The oil boom has created unprecedented economic activity for the Three Affiliated Tribes, but they have paid a heavy price and have had their entire reservation turned upside down. In a few short years, the Bakken oil boom will be over and we will be able to assess the long-term impact on Fort Berthold and the Three Affiliated Tribes. We will be able to see the exit strategy and cleanup mechanisms deployed by the oil companies and we will be able to see what they have left behind.

I believe we can protect our oil reserves – if we have any – for future generations when the extraction process can be less intrusive. I have seen no evidence to suggest that current methods of extraction will be deemed appropriate and acceptable by our tribal members. A Wilson administration approach will be to proceed with extreme caution and to equip our tribal members with the latest and best information.

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