Tim Giago: Why an Indian voted for a South Dakota Republican

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© Unitysodak1@knology.net

Holy GOP! I did the unthinkable! I’m Native American and I voted for a Republican!

No, I didn’t vote for Mitt Romney. Now that would have been unthinkable. But to read the criticism I got from my fellow Native Americans one would have thought I committed a mortal sin.

I was very concerned about the lackadaisical approach to economic development on the Indian reservations of South Dakota by Matt Varilek, the Democrat who ran against the incumbent for the lone seat in Congress, Kristi Noem.

Varilek served on the staff of Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) and one of his responsibilities was to work with Native American tribes in the area of economic development. About one year ago I spoke at length with Varilek because South Dakota is notorious for having four counties in America’s top ten poorest counties. In the 1980 Census, Shannon County, in the heart of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, was proclaimed the “poorest county in America.”

With the economic fate of South Dakota’s nine Indian reservations in the hands of elected Democrats in the House and in the Senate for the past 40 years I had to ask myself, and Varilek, why is this so?

Varilek never ran a business. As far as I know, neither have any of the elected Democrats serving the reservations for the past 40 years. I questioned Varilek about why he thought he was getting a handle on business development and jobs on the Indian reservations when all he was doing was getting funds put into the accounts of non-profit organizations with leaders who also never ran a business in their lives.

He became very defensive when I pointed out to him that none of this was working. Since the death of the “earmark” South Dakota’s Congressional delegation has not been able to direct funds to any worthwhile project on the reservations.

President Bill Clinton had the right idea when he declared that the Pine Ridge Reservation was in an Empowerment Zone. This would give the tribal leaders the opportunity to find investors by offering incentives conducive to getting a foothold on the reservation. With certain tax incentives Clinton believed that major corporations would see this as a business opportunity. Since the unemployment rate on this reservation of nearly 40,000 people was at about 80 percent, an investor would find plenty of readily available employees.

The Empowerment Zone was handed $10 million over a 10 year period that should have been used to entice established businesses to relocate to the reservation. Instead the tribal leaders put a man in charge that had never run a business in his life and the results of this experiment were pre-determined. The $10 million evaporated and not a single business was enticed to build on the reservation and worse yet, not a single business was constructed internally. Instead the money was handed out in loans and grants without accountability. Several individuals got loans that were never repaid and others were given grants that simply disappeared. My space here is limited, but it got worse.

The same can be said of the multitude of non-profit organizations supposedly designed to assist in the establishment of small businesses. Most of the money is eaten up in administrative costs and again, there is no accountability. I asked Varilek to tell me how many businesses were started by the non-profit organizations he supposedly helped to fund and he had no answer

I then spoke to our lone member of Congress, Kristi Noem. Now Noem is an experienced business woman. She and her husband have run successful farm and ranch operations and she knows how a business is run. I have also run successful businesses. I built my newspaper operations without a single government grant. Early on I got a loan from the Small Business Administration as a military veteran and paid back every penny of that loan. I also worked with our local banks to secure loans as they were needed for growth and paid back all of those loans. I am Native American and was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. All many prospective Lakota entrepreneurs need is the opportunity.

Rep. Noem understood immediately what I was saying and was determined to make things happen. She has been criticized, by Democrats mostly, for having the audacity to accept farm and ranch subsidies from the United States government, but then so have thousands of other ranchers. But she knew how to make those subsidies work and she also knew that the one source of money that could be available to Native businesses should come from the local banks.

As a rule most Indians do not have the collateral or the credit rating to secure loans from banks and they cannot use the land they own as collateral because it is held in trust by the Department of the Interior.

Rep. Noem and I discussed the possibilities of moving in a different direction than the stagnant methods used by the Democrats who had been in power for so many years. As two people who have built successful businesses (I started my first business on the Pine Ridge Reservation) we have some good ideas and once the dust has settled from the past election, we will meet to discuss them.

So why did I vote for a Republican? Because the reservations are ready for a change and I felt Rep. Noem could provide it. And incidentally, I am a registered Independent.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and he was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007 and is the recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award

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