PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota Office of Indian Education should stay in the state Department of Tribal Relations, a legislative panel decided Wednesday.
The Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee hoped to reverse that part of Republican Governor Kristi Noem’s 2019 reorganization.
The office was without a director from last summer until this week, according to Representative Shawn Bordeaux. The Mission Democrat chairs the state-tribal committee.
Bordeaux said education directors from the nine tribal governments with reservation areas in South Dakota want the office moved back. Several women who are tribal members also spoke for it.
Tribal Relations Secretary David Flute and an official from the Department of Education testified against HB 1044. Flute said there hasn’t been enough time to judge the governor’s decision. At one point, he stood and delivered long remarks in his tribe’s original language.
Bordeaux said Flute met once with the state-tribal committee in the past year and didn’t respond to further invitations. “It was pretty tough just getting communication,” Bordeaux said, “because the good secretary, who speaks Dakotah pretty well, wouldn’t show up.”
Flute didn’t directly reply. In answer to a question about how he sees his department, he said, “Ever since this office came to the Department of Tribal Relations, I’ve been focused on the mission, and not the politics behind the move, or the executive decision that was made by the governor to move the office.
“I would remain focused on the mission,” he continued, “and that is finding ways to assist our schools, tribal and the public schools, and really diving deep into the reasons why our native students are failing, why there are achievement gaps.”
Flute is a past chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate government. Bordeaux, a Rosebud Sioux, has served in various education roles and said his father has been Sinte Gleska University president 49 years.
The hearing lasted more than one hour. As they prepared to vote, House Education members spoke — mostly — for keeping the current arrangement.
“I kind of like where it’s at, because I think indigenous people are more likely to contact the Tribal Relations office if they’re having an issue in their local school,” Representative Hugh Bartels, a Watertown Republican, said.
“I still think contacting someone who understands the culture and the needs is more important,” Bartels added. “And I think Secretary Flute and his staff have the ability in the current administration, and I hope the position always will reach out across state government where they need to, to get the help and collaboration. And I think we also heard from the Department of Education today that they’re happy with the help and assistance and how they’re being brought in.”
Representative Jennifer Keintz, an Eden Democrat, took a different view. Keintz said she supported reversing it, based on conversations with tribal leaders from her area, the Lake Traverse Reservation, home of the Sisseton-Wahpeton people, that she said “reflect tribal leaders from around the state.”
Representative Will Mortenson, a Pierre Republican, said the dispute was unfortunate: “I look at the folks who’ve come here from our tribes and I want to tell you that I trust you and believe you and respect you. And I say the same thing to the folks from the administration, that I trust you and believe and respect you.
“And today kind of breaks my heart a little bit, because we all have the same goal — everybody sitting out there does — you guys are experts, both sides of this aisle — and yet we’re in here fighting it out.”