Tribal Relations head: Time on reservations is key
By Nora Hertel
PIERRE (AP) — South Dakota's first Tribal Relations secretary said he spent his time building relationships, and that's what his successor will have to do to encourage more cooperation between the state government and the nine tribes.
J.R. LaPlante has taken a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in Sioux Falls, three years after Gov. Dennis Daugaard established the Department of Tribal Relations.
Coalition building is imperative to the position, he said.
"Not any one entity can really address those rural issues that are out there, and that's where Indian Country exists, in rural South Dakota," LaPlante said.
He was born and raised in Eagle Butte as a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and spent much of his early career providing social services in Minnesota and South Dakota. In Minneapolis, he ran a group for Native American and Hispanic fathers.
"I was out on the reservation all the time. I think those early years formed that mentality. If you're going to make a difference, you really have to be part of the community," he said.
LaPlante went to law school at the University of South Dakota after facing down a tangle of tribal, state and federal laws and issues that he said made him feel inadequate. He served as an administrative officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe in the late 1990s and that's when he decided to study law.
"Growing up on the reservation, it was so important to understand how people are impacted by federal law as it pertains to Indian people and the confluence of tribal and federal law, and in some cases, state law," LaPlante said. "I wanted to understand that better."
Before taking his position as secretary, LaPlante, 45, practiced tribal law in Vermillion and served as a chief judge.
He said he and Daugaard have been all over the state building relationships with tribal leaders and members and mediating conflicts.
When the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe wanted help ensuring safety at its August powwow, LaPlante helped negotiate an agreement between the tribe and the state Highway Patrol. The five-year agreement allows the tribe to maintain jurisdiction but call for troopers when it needs assistance.
LaPlante said that three years ago he would not have thought that was possible.
Crow Creek Chairman Brandon Sazue said the creation of the Tribal Relations Department has improved state and tribal rapport.
"We tend to talk more decently and respect each other more," he said, adding that LaPlante served as a neutral party between the tribes and state.
"Hopefully someone can fill his shoes, keep doing the same thing," Sazue said. "He'll definitely be missed by us."
LaPlante said one of the biggest challenges for the future is turnover. Sazue leaves office next month and other tribal members and state legislators are running for re-election.
LaPlante himself leaves in August to work on an effort with the U.S. attorney to promote cooperation between federal and tribal court officials.
"I hope my successor doesn't take the position that he or she can accomplish this work by sitting in an office in Pierre," LaPlante said. "You've got to get out there."