Honoring Native American Heritage
by U.S. Senator Mike Rounds
The rich and vibrant history of Native Americans is deeply woven into the fabric of America, especially in South Dakota. I believe we should celebrate our diversity. To honor their culture and the countless contributions Native Americans have made to our society, President Trump recently designated November as National Native American Heritage Month.
Native Americans called South Dakota home long before Europeans settled in the West. South Dakota was originally a part of the vast territory of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota people. A number of other tribal nations include the Dakota Territory in their histories as well.
Today, our state is home to nine sovereign tribal governments, comprising more than 70,000 enrolled members. I have appreciated the opportunity to work closely with tribal government leaders on a number of initiatives both during my time as governor and now as a senator.
One priority of mine has been to improve the quality of care at Indian Health Service (IHS) facilities in South Dakota. It is well-known that IHS has failed to live up to its trust responsibility to provide health care services to Native Americans, particularly in the Great Plains Region which includes our state. Decades of mismanagement and poor leadership at IHS have resulted in a health care crisis created by government bureaucrats.
The IHS facilities within the Great Plains Region have the worst health care outcomes of any of the 12 regions nationwide, including the lowest life expectancy, highest diabetes death rate, highest tuberculosis death rate and the highest overall age-adjusted death rate. This is unacceptable.
I have repeatedly said that the first step to fixing the crisis is to understand where the problems lie within the agency itself. For this reason, I introduced a bill that calls for an outside assessment of IHS. My bill would require an in-depth look at the overall financial structure, organizational structure and quality of care at the agency. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs recently held a legislative hearing on our bill. The hearing was productive, and the testimony from Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Chairman Dave Flute in support of our IHS assessment bill was helpful in educating committee members about the severity of the problems at Great Plains Region IHS facilities.
Our proposal is now moving forward in the Senate. The problems at IHS are at a crisis level, and our bill is a first step toward getting the agency back on track. The federal government must live up to its trust and treaty responsibility to provide quality health care to Native American citizens.
This month, as we honor the culture of our Native American friends and neighbors, I encourage South Dakotans to also acknowledge the hardships they have faced throughout history and those they continue to face today. The health care crisis at IHS is just one example of how the government has failed to follow through on its obligations to tribal members, and I will continue fighting to fix this problem.