PIERRE | In the first address to a joint session of the Legislature from a South Dakota tribal leader, Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Harold Frazier on Thursday denounced racism, applauded the governor's pursuit of Medicaid expansion and urged lawmakers to provide more funding for roads in Native American Country.
State and tribal officials called the speech "historic." Leaders from other South Dakota tribes, including the Crow Creek, Lower Brule and Oglala Sioux, also attended the event, at which Frazier spoke of the difficulties tribal members face across the state.
"We are born pure of heart. How we treat each other is taught and learned," Frazier said in the inaugural State of the Tribes address. "It is time we re-learned to treat each other with the respect that's deserved rather than with hatred and racism. Only then can we become nations working together for the health and welfare of our people."
He asked the state to help fund county roads on the reservations, recalling that a tribal councilman had joked that driving on one felt like he was "shooting a machine gun."
"We drive it every day, we live it every day, and that's what gets us by ... is humor," he said. "If you don't have that humor, you're going to have a sense of hopelessness."
He lamented the suicides that have plagued South Dakota tribes and discussed efforts to fight methamphetamine use on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, including the tribe's commitment to dis-enroll and banish for life anyone convicted of dealing, making or trafficking the drug.
He also noted the "health crisis" that tribes are facing and said that the often-criticized Indian Health Service has continually failed Native Americans.
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Frazier asked state lawmakers to consider, before they cast their votes, how proposed laws affect Native Americans in South Dakota.
Tribal officials took the opportunity in front of state legislators to back the proposed expansion of Medicaid, which provides health coverage to disabled and low-income people. Frazier, who mentioned the expansion in his speech, and Crow Creek Sioux tribal Chairwoman Roxanne Sazue wore buttons saying it "makes sense for South Dakota."
Oglala Sioux tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele, who spoke ahead of Frazier, called expansion a "win-win" for the state and the tribes.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard has said the state's costs for expansion would have to be covered by savings in part by expanding Native Americans' access to services that are fully funded by the federal government through Medicaid. That would free funds for boosting potential enrollment by about 50,000 residents.
The deal needs the backing of the federal government, the Legislature and the tribes, which are a key part of the plan. Tribal members would see more accessible and improved health care if the changes go through, according to a group Daugaard established to study expansion.
Democratic Sen. Troy Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said the address felt historic. Republican Rep. Don Haggar, who pushed to establish the "monumental" event, said he thinks it will continue.
"One hundred and twenty five years, (and) we've never done it," Heinert said, "so I'd say it's pretty historic."