Bill to change the makeup of state Tribal Relations Committee passes Senate
Photo: Brent Nathaniel

January 24, 2023

PIERRE—A bill that would change the bipartisan makeup of the state’s Tribal Relations Committee passed through the Senate 27-7 on Monday and now heads to the House.

Reporter Joshua Haiar with South Dakota Sarchlight (southdakotasearchlight.com) says the bill, introduced by Senator Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown, would strike a requirement for balance between Democrats and Republicans on the committee. Opponents argue that the move will reduce the number of tribal legislators on the committee.

The South Dakota State Tribal Relations Committee is responsible for fostering relationships between the state government and South Dakota’s nine tribal nations.

The committee is currently made up of six Republicans and four Democrats. There are 94 Republicans and 11 Democrats in the legislature.

The bill strikes a rule requiring that no more than six committee members be appointed from the same political party with one where appointments are “proportional to a party’s representation,” with at least two members appointed from the minority party.

Proponents argue that it would create a more fair representation of the state’s population. The current structure has accomplished little for the tribes, said Rep. Tamara St. John, a Republican from Sisseton.

“Homeownership is a huge issue, housing is a huge issue on the reservations,” St. John said after the bill was introduced last week. “Those things are super important. So, we need to have conversations about these issues and not so much the prevailing cultural issues that take up the current committee’s time.”

Additionally, Schoenbeck said, the proposed changes would create learning opportunities for non-tribal members.

“People should quit putting Native Americans on this committee because it runs contrary to the interests of the tribal communities,” Schoenbeck said during a committee hearing. “What you should do is put people who are not Native American on this committee so that they get exposed to, and get an understanding for, the state tribal issues.”

Shoenbeck said he did not talk with members of the state’s tribes or current committee members prior to introducing the bill.

Critics argue that the bill suggests expertise does not matter on the committee. Only committee Republicans have backed the change, said Senator Shawn Bordeaux of Mission.

Bordeaux is a member of the committee.

“I think the underlying motivation is just to get rid of another Native American from the Senate side of the state tribal Relations Committee,” Bordeaux said. “We only have two of us that are Native American: Senator (Red Dawn) Foster from Pine Ridge and myself from Rosebud.”

The tribes have unique perspectives that need to be heard and addressed, according to O.J. Semans, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and co-executive director of Four Directions Native American Voting Rights.

“Within South Dakota, we have nine separate nations, nine different governments, and those governments operate on their own laws and principles,” Semans said. “And in order for the state to work with these nations, they need to have input from tribal members within committees.”

The committee serves as a platform for tribes to share their thoughts and concerns with the state government, and for state Government to share its plans and actions with the tribes.

The committee meets to discuss issues and to work on finding solutions, Bordeaux said, but few meetings have taken place recently.

The committee has clashed with Governor Kristi Noem and other Republicans in recent years In 2020, it issued a rebuke of Noem’s executive order moving the Office of Indian Education into the jurisdiction of the state Department of Education.

Last year’s Speaker of the House Spencer Gosch and Schoenbeck removed all committee members the following year.