PIERRE, SD -- The chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe spoke in somber tones about the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic on his reservation to a joint-session of the South Dakota Legislature on Thur., Jan. 14, in the annual "State of the Tribes" address.
Chairman Mike Faith, whose Standing Rock reservation extends from Mobridge, South Dakota, north to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, layered his hour-long tribal address, a staple of the South Dakota Legislature's third day since 2016, with discussion of housing, law enforcement and climate change. But his sharpest comments came in addressing the pandemic.
"You know, the first two-and-a-half months started like a regular year," said Faith, "and then all of a sudden we had a global pandemic hit us. It changed our life forever."
For the third day in a row, a majority of the state's 105 legislators -- many without wearing masks that are encouraged though not mandated, some behind Plexiglas shields -- crammed into the House chambers. On Tuesday, Gov. Kristi Noem addressed lawmakers, and on Wednesday came remarks by recently installed state Supreme Court Chief Justice Steve Jensen.
But unlike those two addresses, which largely painted victorious pictures of the state fending off the coronavirus pandemic, Faith -- whose mask dangled from his ear for part of the speech -- spoke in somber tones about a deadly virus that has hit communities of color, including reservations, the hardest.
"We also watched our friends, relatives pass away," Faith said. "And there wasn't a darned thing we could do about it. We watched from a distance."
While Native Americans represent at least 9% of the population in South Dakota, they account for 14% of all deaths, according to Johns Hopkins' data. South Dakota has the fifth-highest death rate per capita in the U.S., according to a state-by-state comparison.
Last month, former Standing Rock chairman Jesse "Jay" Taken Alive died after contracting COVID-19, one month after the wife, Cheryl Taken Alive, also died from the virus.
Sen. Red Dawn Foster, a Pine Ridge Democrat, said she welcomed the shift in tone in Faith's speech.
"Native tribes have been hit disproportionately hard because of all these underlying inequities, such as healthcare, and nutrition, and other things that predispose our community to have a more severe case if they do catch COVID," Foster said in an interview.
"We buried three elders, (who are) fluent language speakers in one week."
In his remarks, Chairman Faith noted that of the 1,300 vaccinations provided to the Standing Rock tribe through Indian Health Service, 635 persons on the reservation had been vaccinated as of Wednesday. He said the tribe has prioritized the elderly and frontline health workers, but also fluent speakers and "people who do ceremonies to keep that custom and tradition alive."
"We're citizens of North and South Dakota. We're also citizens of the United States," Faith said. "But, please keep in mind, that we're unique by treaty."
Faith did not address a rift that erupted between Noem and some tribes, including the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, over health screening checkpoints on reservation borders, but he did note Noem's Secretary of the Department of Tribal Relations, David Flute, has been a good partner to the tribes. Faith also addressed an issue that historically has not often received the spotlight in the Republican-held Legislature: climate change.
"If we don't know it, it's here. It's been changing," Faith said, noting January's temperatures in Pierre has soared into the 50s. "Our old-timers called this the month of hard times. We've been really fortunate this year. We're saving on propane. The cattle operators are saving, but the farmers are probably a little upset because of no moisture."
At the end of Faith's speech, during which strong winds that have rocked the state could be heard rattling windows in the state Capitol, news broke across Pierre of a prairie fire adjacent to the Oahe Dam, a rarity in winter.
Again, Foster found the chairman's words timely.
"We're in a very uncertain time, both with the pandemic and then climate change," Foster said. "We are risking multiple calamities at once."