Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can take the entire population of South Dakota and put it into Albuquerque and just about break-even. In fact, South Dakota's population might come up a little short. While most of the rural counties in this state continue to lose population, the counties located on the nine Indian reservations in the state continue to grow.
The new jobs provided by the advent of Indian casinos are bringing the Indian people home, although on most of the reservations unemployment still hovers around 50 percent.
When Tim Johnson, D-S.D., ran for re-election against John Thune in 2002, the growing political acumen on the Indian reservations came sharply into play. As the vote tallies came to a conclusion and with only one major precinct still not reporting, Thune led Johnson by about 3,000 votes, and there are those who say that the champagne bottles were about to be pulled from the ice buckets.
The lonely, yet populous precinct yet to report was on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The hearts of John Thune's supporters sank as the count came in and the Lakota voters overwhelmingly got behind Johnson and he squeaked out a 574-vote lead that held.
Although he has spent 10 years in the U.S. Senate, Tim Johnson was the quiet man that was hardly noticed on a national level. He did his job efficiently and without fanfare. He made it a point to seek out the Indian leadership in his home state and discuss the issues important to them. There is not one senator in Washington that has more knowledge about Indian affairs than Tim Johnson.
That is why it came as a frightening shock to nearly every Indian in the state when Johnson fell ill with bleeding in his brain recently. At the Lakota Nation Invitational Basketball Tournament, a 30-year-old annual event that brings nearly 10,000 Indians to Rapid City each December, the conversations of the people centered on the condition of Johnson.
One could not walk through the lobbies of any of the hotels and motels without observing Lakota people scanning the headline of the local daily newspaper that read, "Johnson Recovery Probable." Televisions situated in the lobbies were tuned to CNN or MSNBC to get the latest medical reports.People were talking about how Johnson got behind the Pya Wiconi Project (New Life) to bring fresh water to the reservations and about how he fought the Bush administration to get funds restored to the Indian Health Service.
While the people of South Dakota worried about Johnson's recovery and for the welfare of his wife, Barbara, and their children, the talking heads of the national media speculated about how the balance in the Senate would shake out in the event of Johnson's death or incapacitation. "They are like a bunch of vultures," said one elderly Lakota man.
I must say that I was appalled when I heard that a reporter from back East called the office of Republican governor of South Dakota Mike Rounds, and said, "I understand you have already picked a Republican to replace Sen. Johnson and I was wondering who it is?
South Dakotans may be considered out-of-touch or even a little backward, but at least we try to refrain from such acts of rudeness and inconsideration of people during their times of grief and concern. We are a small state where 10 percent to 12 percent of the total population is American Indian, but in times of tragedy and sorrow, we all come together as one. Let me just add that today all of our hopes and prayers, whether in Lakota or English, are for the quick and safe recovery of Tim Johnson, a man who never needed or wanted to be in the spotlight.
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