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PRAIRIE VOICES: Between two worlds

Born in Rapid City, S.D., His Horse Is Thunder grew up on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations. He is a graduate of the University of South Dakota School of Law.

Born in Rapid City, S.D., His Horse Is Thunder grew up on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations. He is a graduate of the University of South Dakota School of Law.

He headed the American Indian College Fund in New York from 1993 to 1995. He was president of Sitting Bull College (formally Standing Rock College) in 1996. In 2002, President Bush appointed him as chairman of the President's Board of Advisers on Tribal Colleges and Universities. He also is chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association. In 2005, he was elected tribal chairman.

He lives with his wife, Debra, in Fort Yates, in a house he built.

His Horse Is Thunder spoke with Herald Staff Writer Dorreen Yellow Bird.

You've been Standing Rock tribal chairman for two years. How do you look at your position? Are you more like the king of a small kingdom or a chairman of the board?


Most definitely like the chairman of the board. The tribal chairman's powers are limited. The power to get things done actually lies within the tribal council.

As chairman, you are a consensus builder. You may have ideas you want to implement in terms of making the reservation better, but you can't just dictate it and say this is how it's going to be. You have build consensus with the tribal council to convince them that your ideas are worth trying.

What are some of the challenges you've faced so far?

Standing Rock does have an unfortunate record in terms of having the highest number of suicides of any Indian tribe in the lower 48 states.

What do you think makes the Lakota people more susceptible to suicide?

One thing is this: As Lakota people, we were one of the last tribes to relocate to reservations. We were one of the last to fight the U.S. government. We were considered hostile Indians. Because of it, we faced more persecution of our culture and beliefs.

At Standing Rock, the federal government made what we call "paper chiefs." The U.S. government had absolute control of all life on the reservation, and it circumvented the traditional role of leader. Federal officials would go to friendly chiefs or leaders as opposed to those who had led in the battles and wars before coming to the reservations.

And when traditional chiefs no longer could provide for their people, the people had to turn to these "paper chiefs" who were given the power to make decisions for the tribe.


The other issue is that when it came to traditional practices, especially spirituality, we were targeted for conversion to Catholicism. Many of the traditional healers the spiritual people for this reservation fled. If they stayed, they were persecuted.

We struggled to maintain our cultural identity.

So, our children are caught between two worlds. True, my parents and grandparents had a terrible time just existing on this reservation but the difference is, they didn't face a mass communication society. Although life was physically hard, they weren't bombarded with this input from the rest of the world.

Today, part of young people's culture is shaped by television. We have the traditional culture that we try to teach them. We say, "Learn the language, songs and ceremonies," but they don't see any value in it. They want what everybody else has.

The assimilation is almost upon us. Do we jump on board and become part of today's system, or do we maintain who we are as Indian people?

We must maintain our traditions and culture. Absolutely, we must because it is what grounds us as human beings. Every human being needs tradition and culture.

The language becomes paramount in holding on to a culture. Since we had an oral tradition, not a written one, our culture was embedded in our language. We didn't have books that recorded it.

There was an Oglala gentleman I was listening to by the name of Virgil Kills Straight. He spoke to a non-Indian audience, and here was his point: The word for woman is winya (wee ya), he said. The root words are win, which means the sun or moon, and ena, the original giver of life.


If you combine those two words to make the word for woman, it's the moon and giver of life. She renews her ability to give life with the cycles of the moon. That is the true translation of woman and the word winya.

That is the culture. It is embedded in just one word. Our language is descriptive and describes who we are. When you learn a language, you just can't learn the word for something, you have to learn about what it describes and if you learn that, you learn the culture.

So, saving the language becomes absolutely paramount. Somebody can learn our ceremonies, songs and our history. We teach it to the kids in school. But if you want to save the culture, you have to save the language.

But we are losing the language. So, what does that mean?

It means we have to give importance and value to language. I look at the street signs on our reservation: Almost every one of them is written in English. Simply changing the street signs shows on a daily basis that the language has value.

One day, I expect that to run for tribal council, you'll have to speak the language. You have to start to show that language has value. If you don't put value on it, it will not be carried on.

I have visited New Zealand twice now. The Maori people there have immersion schools, which they didn't have 25 years ago. Back then, only about 20 percent to 25 percent of the Maori population spoke the language. Today, more than 75 percent speaks the language because they created language immersion schools.

That's something the council is thinking about for Standing Rock.


What are you most proud of during your administration?

Changes are a slow process and must be. People want change, but if you make changes too fast, they become afraid they haven't had time to adapt to the changes, and they are fearful of it.

I'm working on making the council more accountable and ethical and then working toward employees being more accountable and ethical.

How you do that? A lot of other tribes would like to know.

One of the ways tribal employees and tribal council members have acted unethically not illegally, but unethically is in their travel.

Boards and commissions established by the tribe said they were going to have an official board meeting in Rapid City, S.D. But my concern is that official council or committee meetings, school board meetings and so on are public. The public has a right to attend, and if you hold the meetings off the reservation, the average person might not be able to attend.

In addition, we don't have anything on the books about open meetings, and we need to change that.

It used to be that when a new administration took office, everybody was fired. When I came in, I didn't fire one person.


Many tribal governments hire and fire. This administration passed a tribal law that says no council member shall sit on selection or grievance committees. We are trying to take the politics out of the hiring and firing of people on the reservation.

We are trying to get politics out of day-to-day administration, too. That way, we can focus on things such as economic development and our finances and budget.

What about economic development? What are the tribe's major resources?

Among other things, we have two casinos one in North Dakota and one in South Dakota. Prairie Knights, near Fort Yates, N.D., brings in a net of about $10 million a year. That's not nearly as much as the casinos in major cities.

The Grand River Casino near Mobridge, S.D., brings in $1 million to $5 million a year. It is a much smaller casino. For a long time, it really was just an employment agency. It was either in the red or just balancing itself out. But in the past five years we've had the casino for 12 years now and with better management, it's profiting.

I know the tribe passed a resolution objecting to UND's Fighting Sioux nickname. Is there anything you want to say about that subject?

All logos that carry an image of American Indians whether they're by Indian or non-Indian sports teams are detrimental to the welfare of our youth.

Indian schools are going to be upset about that idea, but it's true. There's a study by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg. She showed images (including the logo of Haskell Indian Nations University, which depicts a chief), to groups of students. Then, she gave them a questionnaire on, "What do you want to do in your life?"


The control group that didn't see any images consistently aspired to all different kinds of occupations mechanics, nurses, doctors or lawyers. There were no options closed for them.

But students who had seen the images quickly narrowed and limited themselves in terms of what they thought they could be.

Why? It's because the image carries certain stereotypes that limit who we think we can be, she says.

We can only be what the stereotype says we can be. Even Haskell's "chief" image limited the students' ability to project themselves into all different careers. And the interesting part is that even when we use it in a good manner we don't do war whoops, for example the students realized they cannot even be that chief. That is an image of who we were more than 100 years ago.

That is the most telling to me: Even if you use these logos in a good way, you are limiting your children from aspiring to greatness.

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