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South Dakota Senate candidates look to Indians for victory
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Michael Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule tribe in South Dakota, says he's a Republican for Daschle. He says he votes first and foremost for who will best represent Native Americans. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
South Dakota's race for the U.S. Senate is close. The margin of victory could be just a few hundred votes. Two years ago, Native Americans decided a U.S. Senate race in South Dakota, when the Indian vote helped Democrat Tim Johnson beat former Republican Congressman John Thune. In June, the Indian vote secured Democrat Stephanie Herseth's victory in a special election for the U.S. House of Representatives. This year Thune is challenging the state's other U.S. senator, Democratic leader Tom Daschle. And both candidates are looking at Native Americans to give them a victory.

Lower Brule, S.D. — On election night in 2002, former Rep. John Thune went to bed with a slim lead in the race for U.S. Senate. He was up by a couple thousand votes. When Thune woke up, he'd lost the election by 524 votes. Thune lost the election on South Dakota's reservations.

"In 2002, I worked closely with the tribal leaders on a lot of issues -- whether it was water supply or health care or education funding -- all the issues they cared about I was very responsive on," says Thune. "(That's) why it was so disappointing the results of the 2002 election. But if spending more time, having more of a presence developing more relationship out there makes a difference, we're certainly spending more time this election than we did two years ago."

John Thune made those comments at a recent campaign event, while standing in the middle of a Sioux Falls printing company. Afterward, he headed to the Pine Ridge Reservation to open a Republican campaign office.

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Image John Thune

Thune said he wants Native Americans to think about some things before just handing their votes over to Democrats. As his campaign event drew to a close, Thune became passionate about his message to Indians on the reservations. He says after 26 years in office, Tom Daschle hasn't made life better for Indians.

"I think it's a very compelling argument," Thune says. "If you look at the conditions they live in, we really need someone who will go in there and be willing to look at new approaches, new ways of dealing with the issues facing them every day, and to start to create some economic opportunities, some jobs and a better life for people on the reservation."

Thune calls Daschle's approach one of dependence upon the federal government. Thune says the government should empower people.

Sen. Daschle takes his relationship with Native Americans seriously. Over the years, Indian leaders have shown their respect by giving Daschle eagle feathers -- a sacred symbol rarely given to a white man. Daschle says he's not making assumptions this year, and is fighting for every vote.

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Image U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle

"I've been very grateful for the tremendous support from the Native American leadership, as well as the rank and file, on all the reservations," Daschle says. "We expect to do quite well there. The early organizational efforts would confirm that. But we can't take it for granted."

Daschle has a campaign office on each of the state's nine reservations -- offices that employ tribal members and have been open through out the year. His campaign produces specialized signs, posters and brochures for each tribe.

All nine tribal chairmen have endorsed Daschle for re-election. This is the first time they have formally announced their endorsement as a group.

The Republican Party opened offices on two reservations in the final weeks of the campaign.

In the center of South Dakota there's a little village along the Missouri River, which is home to about 1,500 members of the Lower Brule tribe. Tribal members operate a farm, where they grow popcorn and sell it to Indian casinos around the country. They operate a construction company, a casino and the schools. Each business gives jobs to tribal members.

On a recent October morning, very few people are about. Chairman Michael Jandreau sits in his office. He seems content to look out the window at the breathtaking view of the Missouri river, and talk politics.

"If self-determination is a reality and if it is really a Republican philosophy, then why are all of our health care funds being minimized?" Jandreau asks. "And why are all of our economic development funds being minimized? Why are our lands held in trusts being jeopardized by the actions of the administration?"

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Image A thanks-you from Daschle

Jandreau is a registered Republican. He switched his registration years ago when a Republican senator helped get the tribe's farm started.

But Michael Jandreau is a Republican for Daschle. On his wall is a framed note from Tom Daschle, written in November 2002. The letter thanked Jandreau for supporting Tim Johnson, the Democratic candidate in that U.S. Senate race. On the picture, Daschle wrote, "Native Americans made history."

Jandreau has been in office longer than Tom Daschle has been in Congress. He says he votes for the character of the candidate. He also votes for the candidate who is best for Indian Country.

"But up to this point, I have not found anything as far as Indian affairs are concerned that have gone awry, " Jandreau says. "You have to remember before I was a Democrat or before I was a Republican, I've always been an Indian. I have to -- in my capacity of leadership in our tribe -- look at what's best for our people."

Jandreau says his tribe is better off because of Tom Daschle. The tribe's construction company is building a juvenile detention center, thanks to federal money Daschle secured. It's also remodeling the elementary school.

Jandreau says every candidate for the House and Senate races has made a visit to Lower Brule. But he says most just stop by tribal headquarters. om Daschle knocks on doors. Jandreau says that's why Daschle is aware of other needs on the reservation, including a grocery store and about 30 more houses.

Before I was a Democrat or before I was a Republican, I've always been an Indian.
- Michael Jandreau, Chairman of the Lower Brule tribe

Three weeks before the 2002 South Dakota U.S. Senate election, scandal broke. There was an investigation into widespread fraud involving absentee ballot applications on Indian reservations. When the dust settled, long after the election, the state prosecuted only two cases.

As a result, one non-partisan organization is heading up the early voting effort this year on the reservations.

Bret Healy is executive director of that group. He says this year more Native Americans will vote in South Dakota than ever before. Healy's group has opened satellite auditor offices on some of the more remote reservations, like Pine Ridge and Rosebud.

South Dakota's early voting period allowed people to start voting on Sept. 21. The satellite offices make it easier for reservation residents to vote, and show an ID as required by law when casting a ballot. Without the offices, residents would have to drive up to two hours to a county office to vote. Healy says it's important to allow early voting on the reservations because get-out-the-vote efforts can be tricky on Election Day.

"Time is very valuable when it comes to trying to get folks to the polls. And frankly, in areas of the country that don't have the best roads, best transportation, and some things work against increased turnout. With that in mind, what we're doing for the fall election -- we focused on three reservations in three counties," says Healy.

Lower Brule Chairman Michael Jandreau says not all Indians understand the power their vote has. Twice in the past two years, South Dakota's Indian vote has helped Democrats win a close election. Michael Jandreau says if his people see the impact of their vote for a third time, it's only the beginning. He says next, they'll focus on making a difference in the makeup of the South Dakota Legislature.

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