WAGNER -- A proposal designed to improve relations between the South Dakota government and the Yankton Sioux Tribe has been met with mixed reactions from the public.
During its June meeting, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission issued a proposal that would allow enrolled members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe and their families an exemption from purchasing a park entrance license at North Point Recreation Area, Fort Randall South Shore Recreation Area, Randall Creek Recreation Area and Fort Randall Spillway Lakeside Use Area.
According to public comments submitted to the GFP website, 15 people have expressed support for the proposal, while nine offered comments of opposition.
Tribal leaders met with the GFP in February and suggested waiving entrance costs to allow access to the four parks located on or within close proximity to the reservation. While the exemption would forgo a fee of $8 per day or $36 annually, it would not include fees for camping, lodging or picnic shelter reservations.
“We have the same exemption at West Bend,” said Scott Simpson, GFP Parks Division director. “We had a conversation with some of our local tribes about how we could create recreational opportunities, create relationships with our tribes -- what we can do for them and how we can work better together.”
When YST vice chairman Jason Cooke, Business and Claims Committee member Derrick Marks and tribe lobbyist Ross Garelick Bell met with the GFP Commission, not only did they cite the current West Bend agreement, but also that tribes in Crow Creek and Lower Brule also had free access to the river.
Marks also pointed to the fact that the Yankton Sioux Tribe were originally river dwellers and fishermen, so access to the river would provide a source of ancestry.
“We only have access to some horrible, decaying bluffs on the southside of Charles Mix County,” Marks said. “All of the prime water access is on the west side. Our people were here millennia before, we’re here now and we’re not going anywhere. To have access to the same water that my ancestors utilized as their life source -- to have limited access or to pay for it, is an injustice.”
Free access to swimming areas in the summer would also relieve a great financial burden from some tribal members that otherwise could not afford to pay the fee, according to Marks. In 2017, a Department of Health and Human Services study reported the Yankton Sioux Tribe had a $8,642 per capita income, while the United States Census Bureau reports 40 percent of tribal households have an income of less than $35,000 per year.
Simpson also noted that the financial impact of the exemption “will not be significant at all.”
“This is a great start,” Marks said. “A lot of people go down there to swim and $35 is hard to swing, especially if you have three vehicles. Trying to buy a tag for each vehicle at $8 per day adds up real quick. Having our homelands available at no cost is vital to our people.”
While there is strong support for the proposal, there has also been opposition in the public comment section on the GFP website. Those comments have also come with controversy.
One comment from a Lake Andes resident stated, “I live along the river in that area and regularly have to pick up bags and bags of trash left by Tribal members. Many do not respect the environment and should (not) be given benefits other residents won’t have. Your park employees will be picking up dirty diapers, liquor bottles, food wrappers, etc.”
There was also a comment from someone claiming to be Ryan Frederick, the mayor of Lake Andes. The post stated, “I am writing in regards to the state giving the tribes free passes into the state parks. Why as tax-paying individuals do we need to pick up the extra money that they get for free. We pay to enter and to use these areas, so should everyone else, including the natives. This is not a right, this is a privilege we pay for! Please keep it fair to everyone, not just a few!”
When Frederick was reached for comment, he told the Mitchell Republic he had no knowledge of the post and that he “never wrote that.” Frederick’s wife, Samantha, is an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe and vehemently denied ideas that her husband wrote the post on social media, adding that Frederick’s attorney was looking into the matter.
Public comments are submitted on the GFP website. First name, last name, city and state are required fields of entry, while email is optional. GFP also confirmed to the Mitchell Republic on Friday that there was “no way to vet the origin of a public comment.”
The commission will provide an opportunity for the public to issue comments at the next meeting July 16-17 through teleconference and will later decide whether the proposal should be sent to the state rules committee.