Standing Rock Chairman Mike Faith “Buffalo Soldier” addressed a joint session of the South Dakota legislature on Thursday, January 14.
Faith spoke in the traditional way without scripted notes. Nevertheless, he covered a broad and firm agenda of treaty authority, agri-business and environmentalism, law enforcement, housing and road construction, education and health care.
His overarching theme was a call to work together, to mend fences and work together for the benefit of those represented by government.
He said, “It’s time to put differences aside… We just have to understand each other. We’re no different than the next-door neighbor. We can help each other for a better economy, a better understanding, better education. But we have to be willing to do that. Without that, we’re…going to be the same people pointing fingers. It’s not a perfect world. Not without bumps and bruises. But working together, the people we represent is going to benefit.”
Faith was introduced by Lt. Governor Larry Rhoden. Faith entered the chamber escorted by a color guard of Native veterans from American Legion Post 239 and to the sounds of the Grand River Singers drum group who received a round of applause from the gathering.
Faith took the dais behind a Plexiglas shield. He was unmasked while he spoke, as were most in attendance. One or two people wore masks with a face shield as additional protection.
Faith began by asking Sisseton Wahpeton chairman Delbert Hopkins Jr. “Iron Wings” to open the meeting with prayer. Hopkins blessed all those who pray with the Bible or the čhaŋnúŋpa. Hopkins called for traveling mercies for those in the path of the wind storms which were on the way. During the address news broke of the fires in Pierre and Lemmon.
Faith returned and opened with recognition of tribal leaders in attendance; Standing Rock tribal council members Wayne Looking Back, Joe White Mountain, Jr., Delrey Demery, Nola Taken Alive and Charles Walker. Also in attendance was chairman Peter Lengkeek from Crow Creek.
The pandemic and treaty authority
Faith gave a quick overview of facts of the Standing Rock reservation and spoke to the massive impact of the pandemic on his people.
He was visibly shaken speaking of the losses. “You know we sat back and watched our friends, neighbors have to self-isolate. We also watched our friends, relatives… … …” Faith stopped speaking, unable to say the words to describe the deaths. He regained his composure and went on to speak about the challenge of getting incident command and emergency management systems rolling in the early part of the year.
He spoke of the importance of being tribal and unique by treaty, which allowed his tribe to adjust testing and vaccination guidelines.
“Being tribal, unique by treaty, we did a little bit different. You know, we added the fluent speakers in there. We added people that do ceremonies to keep that custom and tradition alive. We invited clergy and others to get tested along with the frontline people… We’re citizens of North and South Dakota. We’re also citizens of the United States. But please keep in mind, we’re unique by treaty. And that, to me, sometimes people don’t understand. Because we do vote in your county, state, federal elections. But we also have that uniqueness of having our own government, our own authority.”
Roads and housing
Faith moved on to essential infrastructure and called for road construction. He noted that two people were killed in 2019 when a culvert washed out on BIA Road 3. Both people were traveling for work from Mobridge and Fort Yates.
He cited another culvert which was supposed to be replaced last year, saying, “Mother Nature didn’t know that and doesn’t have that timeframe.” He called for unity saying that other areas have the same issues with rural roads, lack of funds and lack of maintenance.
The lack of housing is an issue across all reservations and can be improved by working toward common ground. Faith said funding will need to step up. “If we get economic development like we want, housing is going to have to pop up. We have to work together to come to a common ground to get housing, a better housing. And again, being dependent on just the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I think it’s time to look for partnerships. How can we help each other?”
Education and Brain Drain
Education was next on the agenda. Faith explained that the BIA works on a triennial formula. So if there is a need to expand schools due to an increase in students, there is a three-year wait. He proposed closer collaboration for the benefit of all.
He drew a line between education and the economy, saying that there are plenty of students from Standing Rock who attend elite schools and become doctors and lawyers, but they cannot return home to work for lack of opportunity. “But without good facilities, good paying [jobs], unfortunately other people grab them.”
The layering of school jurisdictions in Standing Rock is a perfect example of the kind of situation Faith thinks can be simplified buy working together.
He said, “I’ll give you a little bit example of Standing Rock. Within two states, multi-jurisdictions, we have ten schools. Six of them are public within North and South Dakota. We have three grant schools, BIE grant schools that are contracted. And then we have a private school. So again, multi-jurisdictions, different sentry codes, different tribal education codes. It’s my understanding that there is legislation here that you all will be looking at, Oceti Sakowin legislation to schools. Again, please keep that in mind, as we talk today, because it’s important for us to allow our students to have a sense of self-identity. We live in an era of loss of self-identity.”
The chairman went on to speak to the travesties of the “Era of Termination” in Indian boarding schools to make his point that education is essential to the well-being of youth through the recovery of language and culture. He said the “loss of identity — our culture, customs, traditions, our lands, song and dance — it’s coming back strong. The young ones, the old ones down here in the drum group, are taking time off to teach the young ones that they do have an identity. So when that language comes back, it fulfills that. You have the land, you have the language. Yes, we may be displaced from our original land base, but they can have a sense of who they are and be proud of that.”
Law Enforcement for alcohol, drug and firearms
The complexity of jurisdictional authority on Standing Rock extends to law enforcement as well. Faith spoke of the need to cross-deputize to meet the need for support. He said that once they get up to 18 or 20 BIA officers, those officers often get sent away to meet the need on other reservations.
The issues of alcohol, drugs, missing and murdered women and children are critical issues. “The lack of any resources to combat that is pretty tough,” he said, mentioning the need for addiction counseling. He said there is the possibility to stop people crossing county lines with illegal drugs and firearms if jurisdictions could work together more easily.
Faith was powerfully articulate in his storytelling about the need to pay attention to climate change. He said, “The seasons are getting different. Just right now, you know, we’re in the 50s, and our old-timers call this the Month of Hard Times. We’ve been really fortunate this year. We’re saving on propane. The cattle operators are saving. The farmers are probably a little bit upset because no moisture.”
He went on, “Things are changing. Our weather patterns are changing. So, it’s something to really start looking at. And again, you may have areas of concern here. I think we all need to take a serious look at how Mother Nature – we call it Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth – is tired now. So, we need to help her, in a good way, to stay healthy.”
He went on, “Some of the rivers are below streams now. They’re losing cottonwood, they’re losing willow trees. It’s just because of Mother Nature changing. And she’s trying to tell us something. If we don’t listen, our future, the ones what we’re here for…the grandchildren, their grandchildren, are not going to have a healthy environment. So, it’s so important that we look into the future of climate change that’s hitting us.”
Chairman Faith closed by saying, “We don’t have the word goodbye in our language. So, I’ll leave you with this, Tókša akhé, until we see each other again. Philámayayelo, thank you.