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Celebrating Native American History in South Dakota

While the Senate has been focused on the Supreme Court nomination hearing in Washington, we have continued to work on issues that affect South Dakotans. We’ll discuss the Supreme Court hearing in one of our next weekly columns.

Every October, South Dakota celebrates the rich culture and the many contributions made by Native Americans who called this land home long before Europeans settled in the West. Native Americans’ Day is a state holiday started in 1990, and it replaces what used to be called Columbus Day. The late Governor George S. Mickelson joined representatives from the nine tribal governments in South Dakota to proclaim 1990 as the Year of Reconciliation. Native Americans’ Day is our state’s way of observing and honoring tribal members in South Dakota.

It’s a privilege for me to represent all South Dakotans in the Senate. I work with tribal members on a number of different federal issues that impact them. One area we’ve been focusing on since I took office is improving health care at the Indian Health Service (IHS).

The IHS has failed to fulfill its trust and treaty obligation to provide quality health care to tribal members. For decades, South Dakota’s tribal members and other tribal members across the nation have been in the midst of a government-induced health care crisis due to serious management and leadership problems at the IHS. This is especially true of the Great Plains Area IHS, which includes South Dakota. This area has the worst health care disparities of all IHS regions including lowest life expectancy, highest diabetes death rate, highest TB death rate and highest overall age-adjusted death rate. This is unacceptable.

In order to address the issues plaguing the IHS, I recently introduced legislation that would require the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to contract an assessment of IHS’s health care delivery systems and financial management processes. It is past time to address the ongoing crisis at the IHS. We were pleased the Senate Indian Affairs Committee recently voted to pass our legislation. It now heads to the Senate floor for full consideration.  Our bill would only impact direct-care facilities, not those with 638 contracts. This means facilities that tribes have contracted to manage independently would not be impacted by our legislation. In the Great Plains Area, 67 percent of IHS facilities are direct-care facilities.

We are glad that progress is being made with our legislation, but rather than threatening deadlines, requesting extensions, changing administrators and pointing fingers, the IHS, HHS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) need to work together – in close, real consultation with the tribes - to immediately resolve IHS’ many problems and improve care for our Native American communities.

When state, federal and tribal governments work together, we have the opportunity to make real changes that will improve the lives of tribal members in our state.

This Native Americans’ Day, I encourage South Dakotans to celebrate the history and culture of the tribes in our state by attending events in our communities. Sioux Falls is holding its first ever Native Americans’ Day parade this year on Oct. 8, and Rapid City will host their annual weekend festivities in conjunction with the 32nd Annual Black Hills Powwow on Oct. 5-7. South Dakota is home to more than 70,000 Native Americans, and these events help to strengthen our communities by bringing together many people of different backgrounds. I hope everyone has an enjoyable Native Americans’ Day this year.