I've never met Matt Varilek, the Democrat running against incumbent Kristi Noem (R-SD) for the lone Congressional seat in South Dakota. However, I have talked to him on the phone and I will get into that conversation later in this column.
I have met Representative Kristi Noem, first at the Black Hills Powwow in October of 2010 where Ms. Noem, obviously a neophyte, gamely got out on the arena floor and participated in the round dance with her Lakota constituents. After her first hesitant steps she easily fell into the rhythm of the drums and seemed to thoroughly enjoy herself.
The second time I met Noem was at the annual graduation ceremonies of Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Also present that day was Arne Duncan, U. S. Secretary of Education under the Obama Administration. Noem spoke to the mostly Lakota audience about the importance of higher education and of ensuring that the Indian colleges receive the federal funding support they need.
Matt Varilek worked for Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) in the area of economic development. While working on an article about economic development, or a lack thereof, I contacted Varilek to get his input on the topic. We had a lengthy and oftentimes heated conversation.
Varilek had the misguided, in my mind, idea that the way to promote and even fund economic development on Indian reservations was to give large sums of grant money to non-profit organizations. As a Native American that had built (yes built) successful business ventures in Indian country I felt that I had the background to understand how to fund economic development in Indian country. I pointed out to Varilek that money poured into non-profit organizations led by people who had never run a successful business in their lives was self-defeating. Most of the money granted to these organizations was eaten up by administrative costs. I had seen this type of wasted funding for too many years.
My fervent belief, a belief I pointed out to Varilek, was that as long as this version of mindset continued to foment in Washington, D. C., nothing would ever be accomplished in the area of economic development. In the more than 30 years I have operated a business in Indian country I have witnessed the total failure of the federal government by following the guidelines suggested by Matt Varilek. Money distributed to non-profit organizations headed by directors with no practical business experience is a waste of taxpayer's money. Varilek, already enveloped in this archaic mindset, became quite angry at my challenge.
I suggested to him that common sense should replace his bureaucratic logic. Why not, I suggested, put a sum of money in a local bank that would be set aside strictly for Native American business development and allow the bank to look over the business plans of prospective entrepreneur's and loan the money to those with sound business ideas.
This is the way I started my first business. I went to the Stockmen's Bank in Rushville, Nebraska with a business plan, with very little collateral, and convinced the loan officer that my business idea would succeed. I got the loan and started my first newspaper. It would have been so much easier if the federal government had a program to work with local banks.
Kristi Noem is a freshman member of Congress. Like anyone that is new on the job, she is learning and she does not have any fear of coming to the Indian reservations and seeking the advice of folks like the president of Sinte Gleska University, Lionel Bordeaux, about how to improve education on the Indian reservations. She has not had the time in office to really tackle the problems of economic development in Indian country, but when I spoke with her she had an open mind and was willing to listen to the ideas of proven, successful Indian business men and women. These are the people who Varilek did not speak to and when confronted by a successful Indian business man he became combative and protective of the failed policies of the past.
For too long Native Americans believed that it is was the Democrats alone that could solve the multitude of problems on Indian reservations forgetting that Republican senators like Jim Abnor and Larry Pressler also did so much to promote and preserve the sovereignty of the Indian nations in South Dakota.
For all of these reasons I became an Independent and I have urged other Native Americans to free themselves from the lockstep of the Democratic Party and join the ranks of the Independents. South Dakota is the home of four of the poorest counties in America and they are all on Indian reservations. Unemployment on these four reservations runs as high as 80 percent. I have seen no improvement in the past 30 years under the watch of the Democrats.
Kristi Noem is new to Indian country and I hope that she will bring fresh ideas to pushing for economic development on the Indian reservations. At least she will listen to successful Indian business men and women and, I believe, learn enough to pass the legislation so badly needed to bring jobs and homegrown businesses to the reservations.
Matt Varilek still clings to the failed policies of his predecessors and when faced with new ideas to overcome these failures he disconnects and rebels.
I think we need to give Kristi Noem the opportunity to continue to learn and strive to reach out to the nine Indian reservations in her state. Her predecessor, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) was great, but it took her many years to connect to the people on the Indian reservations. Right now Noem is our representative and if she keeps that open mind and really wants to learn and to help the people on the Indian reservations, we should all assist in her education. For all of these reasons, my vote will be for Kristi Noem.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. Giago was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder of Indian Country Today. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net