J.R. LaPlante

J.R. LaPlante was 21 and just out of college in 1990 and heading back home to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to start a Christian youth ministry when he first heard about the late Gov. George Mickelson's Year of Reconciliation.

"I remember reading about it. ... It gave me hope that there would be some changes in the way the state and tribes interact," LaPlante recalled last week from the vantage point of his new post as head of the South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations. LaPlante, 42, joined Gov. Dennis Daugaard's administration last week as the nation's only cabinet-level, state government position for tribal affairs. It is a job, he says, that will give him a unique opportunity to affect interactions between state government and the nine tribal nations that share the state's borders.

Twenty years later, the practical effects of Mickelson's effort to improve race relations in South Dakota have proven harder to quantify, perhaps because of his death in a plane crash three years into the reconciliation effort. But the Year of Reconciliation did have the symbolic effect of raising expectations and creating hope, especially among tribal people, LaPlante said.

"It's unfortunate that he had to pass on, because he took with him the philosophical vision and the mindset of how that reconciliation was going to be and what it was going to look like," he said. "But I think it will always have a very symbolic meaning to all the people of South Dakota. Reconciliation is a powerful word, because it implies that whatever differences we had, we're going to try to resolve them."

"Our challenge today, both in terms of the state and the tribal side, is to realize that meaning and move it beyond symbolism and into reality. I certainly hope that I will play a significant role in helping move that forward," LaPlante said.

His journey from his childhood home in Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to the halls of state government began when he left home in the ninth grade to attend a Baptist college prepatory boarding school in Tennessee. He stayed in Tennessee for college, graduating from Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City. In 2009, LaPlante fulfilled a lifelong dream of graduating from the University of South Dakota School of Law.

"It was something I always knew I wanted to do ... and I finally got the chance to do it," he said. Before accepting the tribal relations job, he practiced law in Vermillion, where his wife, Kathy, is an associate professor of social work at USD. Before entering the legal profession, he held a variety of jobs, many in the tribal sector and all aimed at serving his people.

LaPlante was born into two of the four bands of the Teton Lakota that reside on Cheyenne River: the Minnecoujou, or People of the River, and the Itazipco, or No Bows, bands. Named after his father, Leroy Sr., LaPlante got his nickname "J.R." from the "junior" appellation. His parents, Leroy and Toni, 82 and 80, still live 11 miles north of Eagle Butte.

"It's God's country. It's beautiful," he says of his home reservation. "We're known as the Waste Wakpa, the land of the good river, the beautiful river." In addition to the Cheyenne, the Moreau and the Missouri rivers flow through ancestral lands. With strong ties to the community and the land, he hopes to return to live there some day.

The reservation is also the place where LaPlante discovered his own spirituality, a combination of his Christian faith and his ancestral ways that mesh seamlessly for him.

"I think one's relationship with the Creator is very personal. I don't look at it as something you wear as a badge," he said. "I describe myself as Christian, but I'm also very respectful and involved in my ancestral ways. Christianity had a dramatic impact on my life, but at the same time, my heart leaned toward the traditional ways, as well."

"As a younger person, I was told there was a conflict between the two, and I struggled with that," he said. Over time, he came to believe that there was no conflict, taking a lesson from other Native American spiritual leaders who are also Christian.

"Some of our greatest spiritual leaders ... have practiced the Christian faith and followed the gospel of Christ and at the same time practiced our ceremonial ways, as well," he said.

LaPlante doesn't downplay the many economic and social problems that plague the state's reservations, including the Cheyenne River reservation, home to Ziebach County, the poorest county in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. "You can speak to all the negative things that exist on reservations, because they are there," he said.

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Certainly, the large, land-based treaty tribes in the state face enormous challenges in providing essential services to a growing population spread across a vast area, he said. Underfunding by the federal government is a concern, but it is not the only one, he said.

"We can always say we need more money, but we're in an economic downturn. All the states are dealing with it. The federal government is facing a shutdown right now," LaPlante said.

"I just don't think you fix problems anywhere -- whether on or off the reservation -- by throwing money at it," he said. He points to the number of nonprofit organizations already operating on the state's reservations, as well as the amount of federal dollars that currently flow into reservation-based programs, as proof of that. "You fix problems, I believe, by collaboration, whether that's with faith-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, community organizations or tribal, federal and state government."

Some of the problems in delivering adequate services to reservation residents are systemic, not a funding problem, he said. "In addition to adequate funding, there has to be proper systems in place. We have to ask, "How much of that money is going to direct services and how much of it is going to administrative and management costs?"

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He hopes his department will play a significant role in facilitating that collaboration. "Are we maximizing the partnerships that are available? Are we maximizing resources? That's part of the question."

Despite the poverty and hardships they live with, the people of Cheyenne River are a daily inspiration to LaPlante. "They keep our traditions and our ceremonies and our way of life vibrant and strong, despite the challenges," he said.

"I want people to understand that there are families there, and family groups there, extended communities there. There is language. There is culture. There is ceremony. There are landmarks, sacred sites, historical sites. There's all these wonderful, beautiful things that we as Indian people cherish," he said. "For all of the negative press that the reservations receive, these things keep us tied to the reservations and committed to making it work."

At a March 1 ceremony held at the Wakpa Sica Reconciliaton Place in Fort Pierre, residents of several reservations, along with a large contingent of state government staff and officials, showed up to honor the new tribal relations secretary.

Rosebud Sicangu Lakota elder and spiritual leader Albert White Hat spoke about the responsibilities and burdens that his nephew would face in his new job.

"A lot of us still don't trust the state. Some of us have scars that we'll take to our grave," White Hat said, before praying over his nephew with an eagle feather to ask the Eagle Nation to assist him. The Bad Nation Singers, a drum group from the Crow Creek Reservation, offered Lakota flag and honor songs to the Great Spirit during the ceremony.

A history of broken promises and the historic underfunding of treaty obligations is part of the challenge of his new job, LaPlante knows, but he echoes the governor in saying he wants to see new collaborations and fresh ideas in state-tribal relations. "We are mutually tied to the land and citizens of South Dakota, both Indian and non-Indian," he said.

Daugaard and Lt. Gov. Matt Michels told the Wakpa Sica audience that elevating the tribal relations position to cabinet level is more than mere "window dressing" for their Republican administration. "I have a lot to learn. I'm very ignorant about you," Daugaard admitted. But he pledged that he will keep his promise to respect the aspirations of each tribe in South Dakota "not because it is written on paper, but because it is written in my heart."

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com


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