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Rosebud Sioux president pushes for Medicaid expansion, college tuition waivers in annual State of the Tribes

Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney Bordeaux delivers the 2019 State of the Tribes on Thursday, Jan. 10, in the South Dakota House of Representatives. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. -- In South Dakota’s fourth annual State of the Tribes address, Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney Bordeaux urged the legislature to explore ways to improve health and mental health care for American Indians on the state's nine reservations, including expanding Medicaid.

He opened his address by underlining a mental health crisis in the native population, which he said is due in part to a lack of mental health care resources in the reservations and, more broadly, in rural South Dakota.

According to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indian and Alaska Natives have the highest rate of suicide out of any racial group in the United States at 21.5 suicides per 100,000 people -- 3.5 times higher than that of the group with the lowest rate.

Lack of care isn’t exclusive to mental health, Bordeaux said. He called the Indian Health Service a “failure,” and said the federal government is not upholding its treaty promises to provide health care to Native people. Because of under-funding and under-staffing of the reservations’ hospital systems, he said tribal residents are sometimes forced to go off of the reservation to different hospitals -- often at an exorbitant cost. A potential solution, Bordeaux said, would be expanding Medicaid.

Another challenge on the reservations, he said, is education. Roughly one in five native students of the three schools located on Rosebud read at grade-level, he said, and of an average 290 students who start in high school, six graduate from college on-time after getting their high school diplomas.

Part of the reason for this, he said, is the economic burden of higher education. A tuition waiver for native students who attend South Dakota public universities, he said, could be an answer.

“Please do not be confused,” Bordeaux said. “We are not asking for a handout, just an opportunity. . . . Like everyone else, we want our kids to have better lives than we ourselves had.”

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Sen. Troy Heinert of Mission said following the address that such a waiver program is something he thinks the legislature can pursue within the current legislative session.

Bordeaux didn’t finish before addressing the elephant room: The Keystone XL Pipeline, an everlasting rift between tribes, the government and the oil industry.

“What is missing is an appreciation of the long-term effects of an oil pipeline going through our sacred land,” he said. “Landowners are being bought out for some savings at the pump.”

Legislators in 2017 passed Senate Bill 176, which Bordeaux called an anti-protest law passed as a direct response to the Keystone XL Pipeline protests in Standing Rock. The bill, he said, infringed upon Native people’s rights to protest.

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem said during her State of the State address Tuesday that she plans to work with tribes, companies and law enforcement to “make this (pipeline construction) as uneventful as possible.”

“Let me be very clear on this: I want the construction of this pipeline to be safe, clean and efficient,” Noem said. “We will make sure that people, water and the environment are protected.”

Noem also said during her address that she is looking to “build relationships and partnerships with (the tribes) in many areas: education, law and order, and economic development.”

Heinert, who is also the first Native American lead the Democratic caucus and a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, said he was “really pleased that (Bordeaux) brought the tough issues up, things that really matter to our community.”

“Sometimes it’s tough for the legislature to hear those things but they needed to hear it,” Heinert said.

Secretary of Tribal Relations David Flute, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, said Bordeaux in his address “shared real-life examples and current-time examples of the challenges that tribes face.”

Flute said he and Noem plan to tour the state’s nine tribes after the legislative session to advance her tribal relations policies and “see where we can find that common ground with the tribes.”