Crow Creek Sioux Tribe chairman Brandon Sazue is willing to drive an hour across the rolling central South Dakota grasslands that separate his reservation from Pierre, the state capital, in order to buy sneakers for his kids. He has declared a personal economic boycott of Chamberlain, the reservation border town that’s a half-hour closer to his house.
Chamberlain is where he and other tribal members have long shopped and done their business. However, its high school wouldn’t allow a Sioux honor song to be performed during its recent late-May graduation—even though about one-third of the student body is Native, and there’s a petition signed by staff and students requesting it. The song was eventually presented, but outdoors, across the street, rather than inside at the ceremony.
The tall, strapping chairman is still fuming. “Their refusal is ringing in my ears,” Sazue said.
The tribe’s history has been especially painful, and opportunities to celebrate are valued. Fort Thompson, where most of the 3,000-member tribe lives, was originally a prison camp. Most tribal members are descended from Dakotas exiled there from Minnesota following the Dakota–U.S. War of 1862. The journey was so grueling that many, including hundreds of children, died of starvation and disease, writes Mdewakanton Dakota author Diane Wilson in Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life.
Sazue isn’t requiring anyone to join his boycott, and it’s not known how many individuals have followed his lead. But one prominent business is joining the boycott: the tribe’s Lode Star Casino, in Fort Thompson. The casino’s board of directors voted in early June to begin purchasing goods and services—from beverages to air-conditioner repair—from non-Chamberlain suppliers, Sazue said.
Is the boycott hurting Chamberlain? “No comment,” responded Ashley Chrisinger, assistant director of the area’s chamber of commerce. “That’s between the school board and the tribe. We don’t want any part of that.”
Nationwide, researchers have found that Native American funds flow generously to reservation border towns like Chamberlain, as well as nearby counties and states. Even impoverished tribes, like Crow Creek and other South Dakota Sioux reservations—long ranked by the U.S. Census among the very poorest jurisdictions in the nation—contribute mightily. In large part, that’s because many reservations have few, or no, businesses. As a result, people living and/or working on tribal homelands shop in nearby towns, paying whatever taxes are charged along with the price of goods and services, according to a study by Ethel Steinmetz and Thomas O. Skjervold.
In 2011, Nebraska state senator LeRoy J. Louden told the news site 100Reporters.com that Walmart placed a superstore in Chadron, Nebraska, to draw customers from the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “That store was built because of the reservation,” Louden said.
It’s hard to tell if the boycott is hurting commerce in Chamberlain, but it is clearly riling up some citizens. In a letter published May 25 in the local Daily Republic newspaper, area rancher Steve Novotny dismissed Natives as recipients of “cradle to grave” federal payments. He suggested eliminating these as a reverse embargo of Crow Creek: “You pull yours, we’ll pull ours. Then we’ll see who’s paying the bills, won’t we?”
On June 11, the nearby Yankton Sioux Tribe’s chairman, Thurman Cournoyer, responded to Novotny’s letter. He reminded Daily Republic readers of the treaties the United States signed with the tribes, and noted that the rancher has been the beneficiary of more than $500,000 in federal farm subsidies.
Novotny is one of many South Dakotans on the federal dole. The state ranks eighth in the nation for federal subsidies to its agricultural operations, collecting $11.1 billion from 1995 to 2012, according to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database.
“Pull my subsidies. Go right ahead. I’ll figure out something else, and I’ll still be here,” said Novotny, who volunteered that he is not racist. He added that welfare recipients of any race, along with children of rich people, were “worthless” because they all thought they were entitled to something for nothing.
According to Novotny, “The country simply can’t afford to keep on paying people not to work.” In discussing the conservation subsidies he receives to keep land out of production, Novotny, who owns a hunting outfitter, explained that not working a tract improves its environment and increases wildlife, which in turn benefits hunters.
Another area rancher, Bret Healy, took issue with stances like Novotny’s: “You ought not cast stones at others who are participating in federal programs while you are receiving taxpayers’ dollars to keep land out of production—then charging taxpayers to hunt wildlife on that land.”
At Crow Creek, the boycott has generated not just short-term controversy but long-term plans, said Sazue. He had threatened to pull the millions the casino generates out of its account at a Chamberlain bank. However, he has left the money in place for now and has decided instead to look into creating a bank in Fort Thompson. “It would be a great convenience for tribal members,” he said.
An on-reservation bank also makes sense in the context of the tribe’s economic development plans, including a wind-power initiative that Crow Creek, five additional Sioux tribes and law firm Arent Fox just announced at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative America. Then there’s the business incubator and strip mall planned for Fort Thompson by Hunkpati Investments, a U.S. Treasury-certified community development financial institution (CDFI), the chairman said.
In the meantime, he and others are not giving up the honor song dispute, which garnered interest from Natives nationwide. The influential Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association passed a resolution in favor of having the song at the graduation ceremony, Sazue said. Rights advocate Oliver Semans, Sicangu Lakota, reports that tribal representatives from as far away as Alaska wrote to the school superintendent to encourage her to allow this tribute to the students.
Said Sazue, “The song is for all students, to honor their accomplishments.”
This article is part of a series appearing this week about Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, the boycott of a South Dakota border town and ways the tribe is addressing its economic issues through innovative business-formation and housing programs.