THE BLOG
06/14/2010 12:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

House Race in S.D. Could Be Decided on Indian Reservations

For the first time in history, two women will be competing for South Dakota's lone Congressional seat.

Kristi Noem entered the Republican primary late, but outdistanced her male opponents in a stretch run that saw her win the right to face-off against the incumbent House of Representatives Democratic candidate, Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin.

Although lacking name recognition, Noem, a Republican from Castlewood, is well positioned to give Herseth-Sandlin, a third-term incumbent, the fight of her political life.

Noem, who farms and ranches and operates a small business with her family, believes she made a connection with the people. Her advertising campaign stressed family values, excessive spending by Congress, and not leaving the next generation of Americans with an unbearable debt.

If there are any comparisons to be made from other political races in this country, the gubernatorial race in Alabama might be the nearest reflection. In that state, a highly respected African-American, Arthur Davis, was favored to be the first African-American governor, but some believe he took the black voters for granted and lost.

Many blacks believed Davis was catering to the white voters when he opposed President Barack Obama's health care legislation, prompting the Rev. Jesse Jackson to say, "He voted against his own constituents."

African-Americans and Hispanic Americans are the two minorities with the least access to health insurance. As a result, they suffer from an abundance of illnesses that could have been lessened or even alleviated with the proper medical attention. A severe lack of health insurance has severely dimmed these prospects. By speaking out against Obama's health care bill, Davis failed to recognize the most basic needs of the black population in his state.

Included in Obama's bill was the Indian Health Care Reform, a vital bill that Native Americans have been fighting to get for more than 10 years. The bill included reforms to Indian health care that would have made vast improvements on a system that badly needed reform and funding.

Herseth-Sandlin, like Davis, voted against the bill. This negative vote alone has made her vulnerable for several reasons. First of all, nearly 8,000 South Dakotans have lost their jobs since 2008 and with those jobs, many of them also lost their health insurance.

There are nine Indian reservations in South Dakota and every reservation has faced a crisis in Indian health Care for several years. Funding has been at a minimum to the Indian hospitals so much so that there is a saying among the reservation residents that goes, "Don't get sick after June," because that is when most of the appropriated funds run out and the coffers stay empty until new funds are appropriated in October.

In a tight race in South Dakota, the Indian vote is usually the decider. If the Indian people turn out in large numbers as they did when Senator Tim Johnson defeated John Thune several years ago, their vote is the decider. Thune had the race won, or so his supporters thought, until the final precincts from the Indian reservations, particularly the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations were tallied, and Sen. Johnson pulled out a 4,000 vote victory.

The Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin vs. Kristi Noem race is shaping up to be that kind of a race. The deciding votes could very well be cast on the Indian reservations. Herseth-Sandlin played politics by voting against the Indian Health Care Reform bill and she has a lot of explaining to do to the Indian people, but in her favor, she is extremely popular on the reservations and, in the past, has stood firm for the Indian people on many important issues.

Incumbents nationally are taking a pounding and the old New York adage of "Throw the bums out," seems to be the order of the day.

South Dakotans, as a rule, usually vote for the person and not the party. This becomes apparent when in a sea of red, the lone House Representative and one of the two United States Senators, are Democrats.

And since the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations are now considered the same as people when it comes to campaign financing, the corporate monsters will undoubtedly be unleashed in South Dakota and the fight for the lone House seat will bring every kind of political tactician, savory and unsavory, to this state.

All in all, the House race in South Dakota will shine the national limelight on a state that has fielded such powerful senators as Tom Daschle and George McGovern, both Democrats.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com