Listening cure: South Dakota Senate candidate wants to hear voters’ concerns

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

Garreau with Sen. Johnson and others, at CRYP.
The district candidate Julie Garreau wants to represent in the South Dakota State Senate stretches from the hilly banks of the Missouri River mid-state across rolling prairies, buttes, and pocket “badlands” to South Dakota’s western boundary. Covering more than 13,000 square miles, the rugged terrain of District 28 encompasses ranches, farms, towns, and two large Indian reservations, Cheyenne River and Standing Rock.

            The area’s economic and social problems are just as big and just as rugged, but Garreau, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe whose name will be on the ballot in November, wants to fix them by listening, rather than by telling people what’s going to happen. “This is not about me. It’s about the people of this district and what they need. We need economic development that helps everyone. We want our farmers and ranchers to prosper. We want our young people to stay here and build families. We have law-enforcement issues. When I get to the Senate, my job will be to pay attention to my constituents and find out how they want me to solve these problems.

            The listening starts right away, though. She’s hoping folks contact her through the information on her website ( and let her know their concerns.

Garreau, who manages to be both charismatic and modest, said she learned to pay close attention to others while working with children, a career that has garnered state and national honors, including one bestowed by President George H.W. Bush and the 2009 Spirit of South Dakota Award. The Cheyenne River Youth Project (CYRP) Garreau started in 1988 has grown from a one-room facility into a major community organization with a children’s center, teen center, family services program, international volunteer program, and 2.5-acre vegetable garden.

            The economic development Garreau foresees will be sustainable, she said. “We have to be sure businesses we bring in create jobs that benefit all South Dakotans, while protecting our beautiful land. Sustainability is a traditional Lakota value, and it’s also very practical.”

            Garreau will continue working for reconciliation between South Dakota’s white and Native communities and sees herself representing both. “Let’s get communication going. So many issues in this state are defined as ‘white’ or ‘Indian,’ but in reality are the result of poverty and exclusion that affects both communities.”

Garreau’s been getting an enthusiastic reception as she makes appearances across District 28. Her Facebook site shows a range of wholehearted support. “How about some meat? Or voter hauling?” one supporter wrote in. “Need legal research, holla at me!!!!” e-mailed another. “I can always use more volunteers, though,” Garreau said.

            Though this is her first run for office, she’s no stranger to politics. She has been president of the Dewey County Democrats for 2 years and was a coordinator for then-Senator Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. She communicates regularly with the state’s national representatives, and in the Congressional Record, Senator Tim Johnson called her “a tireless advocate [who] deserves high praise for the love, hard work, and dedication she has shown for her community.”

One idea she’s supporting is wider access to early voting. Casting a ballot ahead of election day is a popular option in South Dakota, with its huge distances and difficult driving conditions during colder months. High gas prices also make many eager to avoid a special trip to vote.

However, this option is not consistently available. “Appalling” was how state senator Ben Nesselhuf, who is running for South Dakota secretary of state, described the situation for Native citizens. “I can walk a few blocks to the county auditor and cast my vote weeks early — at my convenience, no explanations necessary. This is not available to many Native Americans in South Dakota.”

To remedy the problem in their area, the Dewey County Democrats have requested early voting in several locales around the county, including Eagle Butte, where Cheyenne River’s population is concentrated, according to Garreau. However, the county currently plans to offer it only in tiny rural Timber Lake, according to head election official Adele Enright.

Having this option is especially important on reservations, said attorney Greg Lembrich, a senior associate in the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and legal director for voter-rights group Four Directions, Inc. Lembrich analyzed voter-participation statistics from the 2004 and 2008 elections and found that Native Americans take advantage of early voting in large numbers. “When the opportunity is denied, many of these citizens are effectively disenfranchised.”

Garreau was hopeful that Dewey County’s voting limitations would be fixed by election time. “Improving access to the ballot box is good for all candidates and all voters. I’m operating on the assumption that everyone wants everyone to vote. I want as many people as possible to participate and am not giving up hope that this will happen.”

Does Garreau have her eye on a Washington office someday? Maybe, maybe not, she responded. “It would have to feel right at the time, just as this race does right now.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photo courtesy Julie Garreaus campaign.

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