S.D. House wants tribal flags in rotunda

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Tribal governments whose reservation lands share the same boundaries as the state of South Dakota could soon have an opportunity to fly their flags in the state’s Capitol building.

State lawmakers are considering whether to formally invite the nine tribes to each decide for themselves whether to add their official flags to those already in the Capitol rotunda.

The current 12 on display represent the United States of America and South Dakota, as well as foreign nations such as France and Spain who once laid claim to the area, and two that reflect the longer arc of indigenous culture: A ceremonial staff as a symbol of traditional beliefs, and a white flag for the United Sioux Tribes organization, whose significance has faded.

The state House of Representatives decided Thursday night the time has come to extend a hand as a welcoming gesture of goodwill. House members voted 61-6 to send HB 1189 to the Senate for further action.

The legislation would let tribal governments each decide if they want their flags to be put in the rotunda, where the flags could be a reminder every day of indigenous culture to the predominately white state officials, legislators and the visiting public.

A governor-appointed panel that oversees state government’s buildings and grounds in Pierre, the Capitol Complex Restoration and Beautification Commission, would decide the flags’ location.

The legislation also calls for an annual ceremony, arranged by the Legislature, to honor those flags and the peoples represented by them. Each tribal government would decide whether to participate. Representatives from each branch of state government and from each tribe would be invited.

The bill came from Representative Shawn Bordeaux, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and a past tribal council member. He told House members he didn’t pursue a somewhat similar bill two years ago, pulling it at the suggestion of Governor Kristi Noem’s secretary of tribal relations, David Flute, a former chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate.

Much has happened in relations between state and tribal governments during the two years since. Most of what made the news was conflict.

Bordeaux recounted for the House how the sides had come to this spot.

“A couple years went by and I thought, I’m going to bring this back, and fortunately had the support of the governor, and very pleased that I see this olive branch that the second floor had offered as a way to work with the tribes and bring these tribal flags into the rotunda,” Bordeaux said. “I think it’s a good effort to try to bring tribal relations in a better way in the state and to recognize the tribal flags in the building here.”

Two years ago, on a late February day when tribal people filled the Capitol’s halls in an effort to get legislators’ attention turned to their issues, the first-year Republican governor said she wanted tribal flags at the Capitol.

Her welcoming message was lost when, the same week, without telling tribal leaders, Noem started pushing through new laws she said were needed to protect the then-proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, and the local governments in the counties where it would be built, from riots and sabotage.

This was a conflict that had been building since Canadian corporation TransCanada formally announced plans in 2008 for the pipeline. Its route from Alberta, across the Canada-U.S. border, into Montana, ran at a 45-degree angle across western South Dakota to Nebraska.

The route skirted around the Cheyenne River and Rosebud reservations, but drew negative attention because it would run through a massive expanse of land that tribal people’s ancestors once thought had belonged to them and many today still want back. The U.S. government in 1868 officially designated all the land west of the Missouri River as the Great Sioux Reservation.

But the discovery of gold in the Black Hills led to a new treaty in 1877 that reduced the area.. Next came acts of Congress in 1887 and 1889 that established smaller reservations, and then statehood for South Dakota and North Dakota on November 2, 1889. Reservation lands have been further diminished.

After the pipeline laws, Noem found herself banned from the Oglala Sioux reservation for a time, even as she was trying to help get fresh drinking water to people who were hit by spring flooding. After COVID-19 got to South Dakota in March 2020, she locked into a struggle last spring with the Cheyenne River Sioux that’s still unresolved, over traffic checkpoints tribal officials erected on state and federal highways to keep most visitors out.

Shortly after taking office, Noem also had moved the state Office of Indian Education to the state Department of Tribal Relations from the state Department of Education. She has refused to put it back, despite a recommendation from its advisory council last summer. Her administration defeated an attempt this year by lawmakers on the State-Tribal Relations Committee that Bordeaux led.

Among the bills Bordeaux brought to the 2021 session was the tribal-flags legislation. Given the animosity between Bordeaux and secretary Flute, Bordeaux said he was surprised when the governor’s senior policy adviser, Maggie Seidel, testified to a House committee Wednesday the governor was in “full support.”

“The governor is committed to doing this,” Seidel said. “We’re absolutely willing to work to bring this forward.” Seidel then read the Feb. 29, 2019, statement that Noem had made, including this sentence: “We are allies.”

The bill has one Senate sponsor, Art Rusch. But the governor’s ability to influence could also count for something, especially in a chamber where Republicans hold 32 of 35 seats.

The opponent Bordeaux had to beat was the lobbyist representing the Crow Creek, Yankton and Rosebud tribes, Ross Garelick Bell.

None of the tribal leaders at the Capitol that February 2019 day were told by the governor what she had planned regarding the Keystone XL project, according to Garelick Bell. “That wasn’t unity and discussion, that was bullying and pushing,” he testified.

That’s why tribal leaders issued their statements that they didn’t want their flags in the Capitol, he said, and Bordeaux’s legislation was unnecessary because tribal flags could be displayed any time.

“Hopefully that’s coming soon,” Garelick Bell said. “And it should be something happening naturally, not forced.” He added, “That’s the single event that caused the flag controversy.”

Representative Kevin Jensen was a co-sponsor of the Bordeaux legislation. “I think this is a great move inviting them,” he said. “I just think it’s a good bill.”

Spencer Gosch, the House speaker, resisted, saying the legislation wasn’t necessary.

“It can always be done. Individual tribes decided to leave and to take that away, and I disagree with that move greatly as a matter of fact, because regardless of an action of an individual, this is their state too and their state capitol. So the offer of unity has stood since 2019… and still stands and will continue to stand, from our side,” Gosch said.

He went on, “The reason I don’t agree with it is, this does literally not much at all. It’s a ‘may display flags’ and we can do that now. So we’re creating a law that does nothing just so we can feel good. I’m sorry, but that’s what we’re doing here. So that’s why I’m not voting for this thing.”

The House State Affairs Committee voted 8-2 to recommend passage. Representative Marli Wiese cast the other no, but on Thursday night, when the House took its vote, she was a yes with 65 others.

Among them was Representative Taffy Howard. “We have nine tribes within our state boundaries. While they may be members, tribal members, they also are South Dakotans, and I think this would be a nice way to learn about each other’s cultures, share and just further educate each other. I think it would be great to do,” she said.

Representative Carl Perry said it was “a good idea” and “a good way to reach across the aisle. This is not a Democrat decision nor Republican decision. This is just a good, quality decision.”

Representative Steven Haugaard, who served with Bordeaux on the State-Tribal Relations Committee, said it was good too. “It’s a large state. We have Native population in every county in the state and I think it just shows respect for the fact that we share this region and it’s an appropriate thing to do.”

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