It would have been easy for state Rep. Kevin Killer to stay in Denver, but a commitment to his culture just wouldn't allow it.
Killer grew up in Denver, graduating from high school in a multicultural environment full of educational and business options and a comfortable standard of living established by his Oglala Lakota father, Francis, who built a career as a successful CPA.
But Francis Killer also built in his son a sense of roots and responsibility, emphasized each summer during trips back to the Pine Ridge reservation to see family and friends.
So as a young man, Kevin Killer quite naturally came home to the land his father knew and loved so well.
"I think as I got older, I really came to feel and understand the sense or responsibility to community that my dad instilled in us," Kevin Killer said. "I think he made it clear that we had a responsibility to give back, in whatever capacity that was."
Killer, 33, is giving back these days as a third-term Democrat in the South Dakota House of Representatives. There he tries to mix responsible representation of statewide interests with inspired advocacy for his home district and Native American issues.
Last week, that advocacy included legislation he proposed to provide closer monitoring when Native children are removed from the home and placed in foster care. The bill died in House Judiciary Committee, although it actually was shot down at Killer's request.
Killer said a case before the U.S. Supreme Court could affect the Indian Child Welfare Act and its authority in cases of Native child placement, so waiting with the bill for another year made sense.
Which does not mean, however, the issue is going away or that additional monitoring of state placements of Native American children isn't needed, he said.
"I think the main thing the bill was getting at, particularly since the media coverage of this issue, was making sure at the end of the day that our kids are protected at all levels, whether the tribal level or the state level," Killer said.
A focus on children
Killer has particular reason to worry about youngsters, coming from a reservation where the birth rate is high and the challenges many. He thinks about those young people and how to help them improve their lives as he and others lawmakers wrestle with ideas in the South Dakota Capitol.
"The things that sticks with me every day is that in Shannon County half of the population is under 18," he said. "They're not voting yet. But they need representation, and health care and education are huge issues for the upcoming population."
Killer touched on the health-care issue and his Native roots by sponsoring another bill that died last week. His HB1210 sought to assure tribal sovereignty in implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare.
That bill, too, was voted down. Killer said the legislation wasn't quite ready for passage in the Legislature, but the issue remains pertinent. And he was encouraged by the fact that he got bipartisan sponsors on each piece of legislation.
That didn't surprise House Democratic leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton, who considers Killer a bright light for the future in both the Legislature and Native American leadership. Killer's personality and style appeal to others regardless of political party, Hunhoff said.
"He reaches out well to the other side. And I think he has nothing but friends on the other side of the aisle," Hunhoff said. "He's one of the best listeners out there. He's not quick to talk, but when he does speak everybody listens. Because he always has something worth hearing."
Killer's standing in the Legislature was strengthened when he was appointed, at Hunhoff's recommendation, by House Speaker Brian Gosch to the House State Affairs Committee. The State Affairs committees in each house of the Legislature tend to handle some of the most important legislation each session.
"He's a good man. Kevin Killer has performed very well in the Legislature and on the committees he's served on, including Judiciary, where I served with him," Gosch said. "I've had a chance to watch him and the way he operates. He puts a lot of careful thought into the bills he brings, the bills he supports and the bills he doesn't support. He has a lot of respect among other House members."
Gosch said Killer earned the spot with the high-profile committee.
"Rep. Hunhoff and I both thought Kevin was ready for the next step," Gosch said.
Killer also serves on the House Judiciary Committee. But wherever he serves, he brings a reserved style and respect for older, more experienced members, Hunhoff said.
"He shows so much respect for his elders, and of course most of the people out here are his elders," Hunhoff said. "I don't think Kevin is even aware of it, and it's probably his cultural experience, that showing of respect."
Killer said he had plenty of models for that respectful approach to life, including his father and mother, Janice, a member of the Kiowa Tribe from Oklahoma.
Early life challenges
But that doesn't mean it all came easily. Francis Killer died when Kevin was 20, which caused Kevin to drift a bit from his inspired approach to life. "Once he passed away, I think I kind of lost my motivation," he said.
But a friend of his father, Ernie Stevens Jr., a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, stepped in to help fill that mentor role as much as he could.
"Bernie encouraged me to stay involved, to remember and understand that sense of responsibility to my community," Killer said. "He really helped me and my family out."
Killer began his involvement in politics back on his home reservation working for Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle's campaign in 2004. Daschle lost that race but in the process inspired Killer toward his own involvement in politics, at the tribal level and beyond.
"I think through that experience, I really came to understand how important it is for us to be represented at all levels of government," Killer said.
The West River region of South Dakota is a difficult place for Democrats, except for reservation counties where Democratic registration far surpasses Republican.
That gives Native candidates in those few Democratic districts a good chance at serving in Pierre. Some do, but only a few. And given the periodic conflicts between the state and tribes in South Dakota, it could be a lonely, unproductive experience for a Native lawmaker.
Yet Native members have made important contributions in the past. And Killer believes he can continue that.
"It's not really about Native or non-Native issues," Killer said. "It's about making sure that everyone has a chance at the same opportunities."
But Killer notes that it can be especially difficult for Native people to get those chances. So it's important that their voice is heard in Pierre, in words that he tries to deliver with respect.
"Everybody hasn't always recognized our viewpoint, in this Legislature or in state legislatures in other states," Killer said. "It's important that all viewpoints are respected and listened to. I try to respect the views of others. And I think they respect mine."
Along with his work in the Capitol, Killer connects with other lawmakers and employees from others parts of state government in basketball games during the session.
"That's been a really good way to build relationships, with other legislators and cabinet-level staff," he said. "It really gives you a chance to let people know who you are."
Hunhoff believes Killer's approach to relationships will take him far.
"I hope he'll be a leader in South Dakota for the next 50 years," Hunhoff said. "He's a wonderful investment in our future."