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Monday, April 1, 2013

Indians never say goodbye *

The retirement of Sen. Tim Johnson has a deep sense of loss for many, but it is particularly acute for American Indians. Indian Country Today notes, "His commitment to improving the quality of life for American Indians/Alaskan Natives was a priority for him."

And it cites some examples and recognitions of that work. Native Sun News noted that he was "the longtime advocate for South Dakota’s reservations as well as the rest of Indian country."  It states,
"Last year he played a major role in reconciling the House and Senate versions of the Violence Against Women Act that has been heralded across Indian country for its ability to help tribal courts prosecute non-Native domestic violence offenders."  He serves on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. 

Tim Johnson's power and influence  on and off the reservation  registered with people, not only for the work and service he expended, but for the way he and his family inspired people who don't get many encouraging words or deeds from the political operatives in South Dakota.   Both Tim and his wife, Barbara, battled and won over cancer.  Barbara took her message of working and enduring to China, and gave women facing struggles with breast cancer a vision of a future life that is not stopped and obstructed by a disease that so many face.  After being diagnosed with prostate cancer, Tim quietly battled away and diligently tended to his work in the Senate.

After suffering a brain hemorrhage during a telephone press conference, which left him with a speech problem and some  uncooperative limbs, Sen. Johnson worked arduously at physical therapy that enabled him to resume his work schedule with the Senate, and then worked as arduously at his duties.  Despite some loud outcries from those perennial depreciators and traducers who never miss an opportunity to inflict damage on other humans, Sen. Johnson won another election, rose to the chair of the banking subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and did the important work for his constituents.  Rather than let the debilities from a brain injury end his work life and retreat from public life, Sen. Johnson demonstrated what it takes to remain viable and productive in the hectic business of politics.  He had to be more selective about public appearances because of the extra considerations and effort they take, but he demonstrated how to  manage around problems in order to get essential work accomplished.  

One afternoon shortly after he returned to work on the Senate floor, Sen. Johnson came to McLaughlin on the Standing Rock Reservation for the dedication of a new tribal business center.  The center is devoted to facilitating the start up of enterprises that can serve the economy and the culture of the  reservation.  Sen. Johnson was rolled up to the podium in a wheel chair, then stood up and read a statement he had prepared, a measure he took to insure that his words are carefully chosen and delivered with clarity.  But his appearance at Standing Rock had more purpose than to encourage an economic enterprise.  At the time, Standing Rock had experienced some troubling law enforcement problems, and Sen. Johnson and Rep. Herseth Sandlin had facilitated augmenting the tribal police force with some federal help from the BIA police.  Sen. Johnson's appearance was evidence that the people of Standing Rock were being served in accordance with the original treaties and agreements that created the  reservations and that their elected representatives were attending to their needs.  

While the reservations on which Native Americans have been put contain the most barren lands in the state, they remain places where the native people have some contact with the lands that were once their domain and the sustaining culture that they practiced on it.  Sen. Johnson is one of the elected officials who recognized the intensity of their bond to the land and honored their sovereign relationship to it.  

Sen. Johnson enjoyed respect and trust from people on the reservations, and I particularly remember him being honored in a Dakota prayer during a visit to the Sisseton Wahpeton reservation.  Amid the contentions and malignant atmosphere that comprise politics, especially of recent times, Tim Johnson was a constant force of hard work and mindful regard to the American Indian people.  They have seen their substantial supporters lose elections in recent years, in part because they have earnestly represented the Indian people, and Sen. Johnson's retirement means the loss of a steady and persistent voice on the national front. 

There was also a sense of relief for many in the announcement of Sen. Johnson's retirement.  Bloggers and news columnists are predicting that the 2014 senatorial campaign in South Dakota will be particularly nasty.  Given the performances of the last ten years, it doesn't take an astute mind to make that prediction. Those who would oppose Sen. Johnson have been trying to use his debilitations as criticisms of his performance, but the fact that Sen. Johnson has done his job conscientiously and well blunts those attempts.  However, that is an obvious line of attack, and many people do not want such perverse indignities inflicted upon a man they think deserves honor.  Just as significant is that many, many people do not want to be witness to, let alone party to, the degradations that the coming campaign is so likely to devolve into.  

Campaigns have become more than negative.  They have sunk to a state of moral dementia.  The press, in an effort to appear fair and balanced, but mostly to appease attacks from the right wing, likes to say that both parties are guilty of negative campaigning.  But, one party is vastly more active and responsible for the state of political discourse, as the record of racist, false, and absurd public statements accrue to its members in astounding numbers.  Nationally and statewide, the GOP demonstrates a profound moral destitution.  It puts holding power over serving the people and the causes of liberty, equality, and justice.  

In South Dakota, those who have maintained the records and analyzed the campaigns point the sharp and striking differences between the candidates in the Daschle-Thune campaign of 2004 and the Herseth Sandlin-Noem campaign of 2010. Daschle and Herseth Sandlin tried to center their campaigns on issues, but their opponents kept up a steady stream of character assassination and accusations that successes in Washington were a sell out of South Dakota.  What is dismaying is that those tactics worked, which says something about the South Dakota constituency.  

The South Dakota GOP lets a group of school yard bullies who have never grown out of their juvenile belligerence and witless taunts carry on the political discourse for them.  When the Democratic Party was recruiting candidates to run against John Thune in 2010, some very promising people declined because they did not want to subject their families to the damaging campaign the GOP is dedicated to.   The Democrats cling to the idea that they must fight back by finding candidates, but they have failed to recognize some changes in thinking among their constituents.

There is much speculation for Tim Johnson's son Brendan or Stephanie Herseth Sandlin to run for his seat in two years, but many Democrats think they are major talents that would be wasted on a campaign in South Dakota.  Their talents and educations could be better employed at more uplifting work rather than get besmirched by the degradation that the GOP has made of South Dakota politics.  Standing and fighting is not always smart and courageous.  The immigrants who came to South Dakota did so when they realized that political and social opportunities were closed to them in their fatherlands, and they found it wiser and effective to move their efforts to where they could be productive.  

South Dakota will strain to suppress and oppress those that the conservative mindset designates as undesirables.  If people so designated want to live viable, productive lives, they will need, as their ancestors did, to shift the focus of their energies.  As in the case of marriage equality, the nation at large is going in quite a different direction than South Dakota and other red states.  But the Native Americans in the state do not have that history as an example.  Those immigrants who found better lives in South Dakota did so on lands taken from the Indians through force and fraud.  The return of their lands and their sovereignty over them is unfinished business.  The passage of the Violence Against Women Act addressed a part of the sovereignty issue, but it is receiving resistance in the Dakotas.  Liberty, justice, and equality for the native people are not something that the state will consider or allow.  The extension of those values will have to come from the nation at large.

What Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Brendan Johnson decide to do is, of course, up to them.  They both have strong histories of working for the Indian people in the state, and there are many of us who think their abilities and talents could be better employed than by running for public office in campaigns that leave candidates and voters alike without honor or hope.  

The fact that Tim Johnson will leave office in two years gives some time for him to carry out the legacy of honoring the Indian people.  He may leave office, but the Indians will not say goodbye. 

[* LeAnne Howe,
   "Indians Never Say Goodbye."]

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States