Election reflections: Julie Garreau talks about her recent run for the South Dakota Senate

Published in Indian Country Today in 2010. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle...

ulie Garreau, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, didn’t win the state senate seat she sought in the last election, but she enjoyed running. “I think I would have been a great representative for District 18, but I learned a lot during the race — about politics, campaigning, getting out the vote, and the Democratic party. I was able to shed light on issues our people are concerned about, including the Indian Child Welfare Act and protecting our sovereignty. In a recent meeting of Democratic candidates to discuss the election, I was frank about what we could have done better.”

In the end, Garreau said, “I’m a better person for the experience.” In fact, she added, laughing, “District 28 lost, but I gained tremendously.”

Canvassing was her favorite part of the process. Outgoing and an optimist by nature, Garreau found going door-to-door a wonderful experience. “I loved meeting people. Children became our little guides in each community. I also noticed that in areas we visited, we saw higher voter turnout than in ones we didn’t get to.” That said, the size of District 28 — most of the northwestern quadrant of the state — and the thinly spread population made reaching voters generally difficult.

            Four changes Garreau will support for the next election (whether she’s the candidate or someone else, she said): First, early voting must be offered throughout Native American communities, just as it occurs in predominantly white communities. Second, the candidate should begin working on his or her race at least a year before the election (Garreau had just 7 months). Third, tribal and state/federal elections should share precincts, so people don’t have to make two long trips to vote.

Finally, Native people should request the pollworkers they’d like to see running their precincts, as they’re permitted to do. “We at Dewey County Democrats [a Cheyenne River-area Democratic club] didn’t know we could submit a list of workers we wanted, and that might have helped provide an atmosphere at our polls that was more welcoming to Native people.”

            She also realized in the course of her run that voter apathy was not one of the causes of low turnout on Cheyenne River. “Relevance is the issue. People here aren’t apathetic; they just don’t see that the results of state and federal elections affect their lives. In fact, those results have a lot of bearing on us. For example, any redistricting the legislature does as a follow-up to the 2010 U.S. Census could impact us a great deal. So, voter education is needed to increase turnout.”

            Garreau is proud she ran a clean, positive race and stood up when her people needed her. “I’m so thankful to my team and everyone who came out and voted, and I was so proud to be endorsed by Senator Johnson, INDN’s List, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock. I always tell our young people that it’s important to get involved, and my campaign was a way to show I meant it.”

            Now she has another message for the youth of Cheyenne River and Standing Rock, some of whom have told her they’re sad she lost. “I say, ‘No, don’t be sad; the important thing is that you care and will very soon be voting yourself. We need youngsters who will become organizers and be involved in the community.’” It’s not about the race, she told them, it’s about the work.

            Garreau has no lack of work these days. The award-winning organization she founded 22 years ago — Cheyenne River Youth Project, with its children’s and teen centers, family services program, international volunteer program, and 2.5-acre vegetable garden — is in full swing, getting ready for the Christmas toy drive, which provides 4 to 6 gifts each for 1,000-some children.

            “I feel blessed. I love this state, and I love its people. The work begins now. Let’s start.”

Text and photograph c. Stephanie Woodard.

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