LaPlante, whose Lakota name means “His Horse is Beautiful,”—Tasunke Waste—has an extensive background in human services positions, is the former administrative officer for the Cheyenne Tribe and also previously served as the chief judge and court administrator for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.
Born and raised in Eagle Butte, LaPlante is proud of his heritage, honored to serve the state of South Dakota, and looking forward to working with all nine South Dakota tribes.
LaPlante recently answered some questions for Indian Country Today Media Network.
Indian Country Today Media Network: What does it mean that the Department of Tribal Relations was created with cabinet level status?
Leroy LaPlante: The fact that it is a cabinet level position and a new department really shows some very sincere effort on the part of our new governor to re-establish a working relationship with all nine tribes in South Dakota. The position of Secretary is going to put me at the same level as other members of the cabinet, which means essentially that I will have a seat at the governor’s table—and the tribe’s, through me, will also have a seat. Issues pertaining to state tribal relations are going to take a very high priority—at least on the same level as other state priorities.
What are some of the department’s more immediate goals?
Our initial and fundamental goal is to establish—and to re-establish—a trusting and respectful working relationship with the tribes. My support staff is scheduling meetings with every tribal chairman and my plan is to meet with them within the next four to six weeks.
Through those meetings, we will outline some agenda items and within the next three months will hopefully schedule some one-on-one meetings on the reservations with the governor, lieutenant governor and tribal chairmen. Then at some point later in the year we hope the tribes will reciprocate and be willing to come to Pierre and meet with the governor there.
How do you feel about being appointed the first Secretary of Tribal Relations in the state of South Dakota?
I am deeply honored. I cannot tell you the privilege I feel I have to serve the people of South Dakota and work specifically on the state tribal relationship. I am absolutely honored and very motivated to do my very best and to make a difference.
South Dakota has some of the worst poverty levels on reservations in the country. How do you feel about this?
The poverty is there and the challenges are there, but I think tribes such as Cheyenne River are a shining example of the fact that even in the face of economic challenges, tribes have found a way to succeed and provide critical, much needed services to their members. Cheyenne River, even with two of the poorest counties in the U.S. sitting within their exterior boundaries, has managed to create an economy—which I think is absolutely amazing considering the fact they have yet to build a casino. I think that shows there are other means for economic development on reservations.
Pine Ridge, for example, established the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce. A lot of the reservations are encouraging small business development, which is key to stimulating our local economy. I am not only proud of Cheyenne River, I am proud of all of our tribes.
Is it important to you as a tribal member to work towards the betterment of tribal nations?
I left home when I was 14 to attend a college preparatory school in Tennessee and I went to college there; but I always came home every summer and every Christmas. I think that can be said for a lot of tribal members who leave for whatever reason—we always have a tendency to come back. I think that is because that is where our hearts lie; our people are there and we are connected to the land and our culture.
In my position as the Secretary of Tribal Relations, it is critical that we work for the benefit of tribes because this is their government as well. If the tribes do well, it means the state does well—they are interconnected. We hope to develop and continue to create collaborative relationships and partnerships with the tribes.
How did you become interested in humanitarian work?
When I graduated from college and came back to Cheyenne River, I remember someone telling me that we can all be an agent of change. I have carried that with me throughout the years. When you go somewhere, you want to leave it in a better condition than what you found it in. That has always been my goal no matter what position I held. You can’t force change to happen and sometimes it doesn’t come easily, but I have carried the spirit of a change agent in my heart and mind.
What will your background in law and human services bring to this position?
There are so many needs in Indian country – human services are a large part of those needs. I was a foster care licensing worker with the Upper Midwest American Indian Center in Minneapolis; I was a family reunification worker with the Reuben Lindh Family Services in Minneapolis; I managed a teen parents program at the Division of Indian Works with the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches and I came home and worked for our social work and mental health department at the tribe and was also involved in some environmental protection initiatives.
That all happens by identifying critical needs in the community and finding ways to collaborate and help create some lasting change while addressing those issues. We are not going to fix problems—whether they are on the reservation or elsewhere—by throwing money at it. We have to find ways to create meaningful and effective partnerships. That is what I hope to do in this role as the secretary.
As for my legal background, the tribes and state not only have a historical relationship, but they have a legal relationship as well. Having a background in Indian law is going to be very important for me to ascertain, analyze and interpret the application of laws and federal Indian law.
The Department of Tribal Relations and the position of Secretary were created by Gov. Daugaard as part of his Executive Reorganization Order.