Tim Giago: Walking in the Shoes of the Yellow Dog Democrats

If you are an “Independent” in South Dakota you have to get around a silly (stupid, actually) law that says you cannot vote in the Primary Election.

As an Independent, I’ve had to find a way to skirt this law by dashing down to the courthouse a short time before the Primary and switching to either a Democrat or Republican in order to vote. After the election I immediately switch back. Time consuming, but at least you are not denied your right to vote. Why are Independents treated like a bunch of mavericks in South Dakota?

I have urged Native Americans to drop out as a Democrat or Republican and become an Independent for several reasons. First of all, you will no longer be taken for granted by the Democratic Party, and secondly the Republican Party will make a greater effort to pursue your vote. I believe it will give Indians a much greater political clout. If the majority of Indians were Independents both political parties would be in hot pursuit of their vote. Then, I truly believe, Native Americans will be able to get vital issues on to the party platform. It’s called “horse trading.”

But that does not mean you will not be able to vote for the candidate of your choice, or even to campaign for them. It just leaves the door wide open for change.

There is a popular Democrat serving as South Dakota’s loan member of the House of Representatives. She won the at-large seat in a special election on June 1, 2004 replacing a Republican named Bill Janklow. Janklow resigned his seat after getting involved in an auto accident in which a biker died.

Her name is Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and she is known in the halls of the House as a “Blue Dog Democrat.” The Blue Dogs are descendants of the “Boll Weevils” who in the 1980s played a critical role in supporting Republican President Ronald Reagan’s tax cut.

Both are probably a takeoff on the Southerners known as “Yellow Dog Democrats” who voted strictly for Democrats because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and he had been responsible for bringing down the South in the civil war. The saying was that they would “vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for any Republican.”

Herseth Sandlin is a moderate with a conservative tilt. She is extremely popular in South Dakota and if she had decided to run for governor, a position she gave serious consideration, I think she would have become South Dakota’s next governor. Her paternal grandfather, Ralph Herseth, served as Governor of South Dakota from 1959 to 1961, only the third Democrat to ever serve as governor.

If she had been elected governor it would have been a tremendous blessing to the Indian tribes of the state. Herseth Sandlin is a lady who knows Indian issues, not just on a cursory level, but in a very deep, committed way. She has done her homework probably as good as or better than any elected official in the history of this state.

With the tribes fighting a Republican administration to improve their gaming compacts (The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe brought a lawsuit against the state over their compact) in order to be able to compete against the white-owned casinos and running into a brick wall, Herseth Sandlin would have looked at their efforts in a different and more favorable way.

However, she decided to make a run to keep her seat in the House. That is also a good thing for the Indian tribes, but not as solid as it would have been if she was governor.

Conversely, there is not another Democrat on the horizon, as yet, that can take the governor’s seat from a Republican. So the tribes may have a long wait to get equal consideration on their gaming compacts unless Flandreau wins its lawsuit and forces the governor’s hand.

Many Lakota would have encouraged Herseth Sandlin to run for governor because we believe she can do so much more for the people of South Dakota and the Indian nations from the governor’s seat.

As an Independent I certainly won’t abandon her and I think most Independents feel the same way. She must have thought long and hard before making her decision. And I know she consulted with many of her Native constituents before deciding to run for the House seat again.

Her choice makes the election of a governor supportive of the Indian casinos even more important. The Native voters of this state will have a much stronger position if they stand up as Independents. If the strongest candidate for governor is a Republican he or she will certainly make strong overtures and concessions to the Independent voters if they want the Independent “Indian” vote.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com


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