David Lias

"Those poor people's drinking water is brack.”

This is an utterance I’ll never forget. The man who spoke the sentence emphasized the word “brack” strongly, almost shouting it, to make sure his listeners understood. I was there, pen and notebook in hand, scribbling down every word that I would later write in a story for the Mitchell Daily Republic that day, but that’s not why I remember those words so clearly.

We’ve all heard a statement made by someone that is uniquely surprising and meaningful and powerful – all at the same time. It’s the stuff that, if recorded, we get to hear time and again. FDR’s “…nothing to fear but fear itself.” JFK’s “Ask not …” That sort of thing.

The speaker was Gov. George Mickelson. He was in Mitchell, and I’ll admit I don’t remember why. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a campaign stop because my fuzzy recollection has him talking about various policies surrounding economic development that his office was interested in taking on – not just in Sioux Falls and Mitchell and Vermillion, but at Cheyenne River and Crow Creek and Lower Brule and Pine Ridge and Standing Rock and other Native American reservations in South Dakota.

Listeners also were crystal clear of his intentions when he used the word “poor” in that sentence. He wasn’t referring to the income levels of the people who lived on the reservations. He was describing the undesirable, inferior quality of life they had to deal with day after day because the stuff that came out of their homes’ water taps was basically liquid garbage.

These are things not normally thought about when South Dakota reservations are a topic of conversation. That day, Gov. Mickelson wanted to make sure everyone was made aware. I know I certainly was jolted awake. And, I know he tried hard to improve the lives of every South Dakotan before he lost his life in a tragic airplane accident over 25 years ago.

He wasn’t afraid to take on difficult, politically risky tasks in hopes of making life better for all South Dakotans. He managed to raise taxes (there are no two dirtier words in Pierre) for economic development efforts. He secured legislation to safeguard the state’s water quality (no doubt keeping in mind the “brack” that thousands of South Dakotans had to deal with daily) and he focused on racial reconciliation during a time of division.

He declared 1990 as the "Year of Reconciliation," leading to the proclamation for a "Century of Reconciliation." Also at the request of Tim Giago, a highly respected Oglala Lakota journalist and publisher, Mickelson and the Legislature established Native American Day in October — the only state to celebrate it rather than Columbus Day.

These three-decade-old thoughts have been running through my mind repeatedly this week as the controversy over highway checkpoints that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe have set up in their respective reservations reached a boiling point, it appeared. The governor threatening court action if the roadblocks weren’t removed added extra heat to the situation.

I’m not going to pretend that I even have a hint of what life is like on South Dakota’s reservations. What I know comes from news stories and some personal accounts I’ve heard. Poverty is rampant and all of the things that not having enough can inspire; the things you and I take for granted, like turning on a tap and receiving pure, potable water, can be scarce.

It’s that thought of water and the instructions we’ve all received to fight COVID-19: “wash your hands!!” that have made it easy for me to understand why tribal elders are trying to do all they can to keep the virus at bay.

When it comes to the blockades, ask yourself: “Who can blame them – the “them” being members and leadership of the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes.

I know there has been some progress on the development of water infrastructure on the reservations. The Mni Waste’ Water Company, a tribally chartered entity, has been working for years, with some success, to bring Missouri River water to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Does that mean every household has a reliable supply of clean water? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not, so tribal elders might want outsiders to stay away.

Who can blame them?

The Oglala Sioux Tribe enacted a shelter-in-place order and established curfews. Last month, the Oglala Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe set up checkpoints in an attempt to lock down their reservations amid fears infections could decimate members.

Who can blame them?

They don’t enjoy the same kind of health care system (or systems) as we do. Even accessing clean water, as we’ve mentioned, is likely a challenge. And tribal members have seen the news coverage of how COVID-19 cases are increasing among us residents of eastern South Dakota, while our president and governor insist it’s time to open up and “return to normal.”

COVID-19 numbers remain low on those two reservations, in the single digits. They’ve discovered that curfew and stay-at-home orders are working and they’d like to keep tribal members healthy.

Who can blame them?

We hope Noem has had a personal revelation. Her idea of issuing a 48-hour ultimatum to the tribes to remove the checkpoints or face legal action isn’t the smartest idea she’s had.

South Dakota’s tribes likely find it difficult to take such threats seriously, especially when she came up with a “riot boosting” law in 2019 that targeted opponents to the Keystone XL pipeline – a project that Native Americans are no fans of.

Who can blame them?

Portions of the law, aimed at demonstrations against the pipeline, were found unconstitutional by a federal judge last year, so Noem and the Legislature tried again this year, approving a measure that’s not quite as heavy-handed. Opponents of the new measure, however, claim that the new law will have a “chilling effect” on peaceful protests and creates a false narrative that Native American people are violent.

These past actions may have made the governor’s ultimatum seem, once again, like overkill and a measure for Native people to take less than seriously.

Who can blame them?

Mix in other happenings of late. Noem was sent a letter on Saturday, May 9, from 17 members of the South Dakota Legislature, including Vermillion’s own Ray Ring. The letter cites a ruling by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that shows “the state has no jurisdiction to dictate any actions on roadways that run through Indian lands.”

The lawmakers’ letter also notes that Noem had not contacted the tribes to go over the issue of checkpoints and instead opted to “give an ultimatum” to both the Cheyenne River Sioux and the Oglala Sioux tribes.

The lawmakers’ letter concludes with a recommendation to Noem that she invite the leaders of both tribes to meet with her and legislative leaders from across South Dakota to negotiate a resolution that “reflects our combined goal of keeping all people healthy and safe.”

Such a meeting may not happen, but the governor did a send a letter Tuesday to Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, with a proposal that there be no checkpoints on US or State highways, that checkpoints be acceptable on Tribal and BIA roads and that reasonable accommodations be made at Tribal/BIA checkpoints.

The governor has asked Frazier to contact her “to find a way forward” and we hope he does. Even though it would be easy for him not to, in light of Noem’s recent behavior.

We hope something good will eventually come out of this … something more lasting than an agreement over temporary roadblocks.

We hope this may serve as the first step in renewing that spirit of reconciliation that settled over South Dakota for a time 30 years ago. Think of what’s happening right now. We are in the midst of a health care crisis.

All of us who call South Dakota home must pull together to survive this storm.

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