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He knows Indian Country

Billie Sutton: Democratic for Governor

Billie Sutton, 2018 Democratic candidate for Governor of South Dakota. Photo by James Giago Davies.


RAPID CITY—Now that the primaries are over, and the field for South Dakota governor is whittled down to two candidates, the authoritarian conservative, Kristi Noem, and the moderate progressive, Billie Sutton, folks in Lakota country might be wondering where the candidates stand when it comes to Indian issues.

Traditionally, the South Dakota GOP has not been our friend. The one notable exception being the late George Mickelson, but the Democrats hardly get a pass in that regard. Blue Dog Democrats are keen to court GOP voters. They have to; they come from states with GOP majorities and win anyway on the force of their personality, past history, campaign organization and their ability to convince the Republican voter that they are not the dangerous liberal Democrat that conservatives traditionally fear.

This means they can’t support certain Lakota country issues, like return of the Black Hills, because to do so, would alienate the cross party support essential to getting elected, and especially, re-elected. They must mind their progressive manners, and not venture too far out on a limb to shake hands with tribal leaders.

Billie Sutton dropped by the NSNT offices last Friday. We did not contact him, his campaign was gracious enough to proactively reach out. It is not surprising the Democrats would do so. A decade and a half back, Republican John Thune was favored to take the junior senator seat from Tim Johnson. Thune went to bed ahead, but after the Shannon County returns came in, he woke up a loser. The chairman of the Pennington County GOP had asked for more campaign funds for the reservation, he was turned down. Conventional perception was Indians would not vote, regardless of how heavily they voted Democrat. Courting them was considered a waste of time and money. Despite that history, at this point, the Noem campaign has not contacted NSNT for a similar interview.

Sutton is perhaps the earthiest gubernatorial candidate in many decades. He was a rodeo star at the University of Wyoming, their all-time points leader. He subsequently reached a top 30 worldwide ranking on the PRCA pro circuit, but that career was cut tragically short in Minot, North Dakota, when his bronc flipped and paralyzed the then 23-year-old Sutton from the waist down.

You have to be tough to be a rodeo cowboy, have to pick yourself up from the dirt and get back on ornery rodeo stock that does not want to cooperate in the slightest degree. But no cowboy is tough enough to get up from what happened to Sutton, and so Sutton’s rodeo career was over, and he knew the rest of his life would be spent in a wheelchair.

Even in his wheelchair, were you to place Sutton in tall prairie grass ringed by craggy buttes, he would blend into the rugged landscape. Even though he is not an Indian, there is something earthy and authentic about Sutton—he seems indigenous to the sunbaked, snow-blown ranch country he was raised in. Tough cowboys are supposed to be gruff, strong and silent, with wire brush stubble on granite chins. Sutton is gentle and soft spoken, he communicates in simple, yet well considered language. The accident may have slowed him down, but a decade later, he is back in the saddle and ready to tackle a formidable conservative opponent in a conservative state.

“We did a rodeo tour with my sister,” Sutton said. “She wrote a song about me seven years ago, about my injury and accident, kind of how I fought through the adversity, and how I got to where I am today.”

Where Sutton is today, is just over three months from a general election that will decide our next governor. He is obviously fighting an uphill battle, but Sutton has been fighting that battle since that fateful day in Minot, and most of the hill is behind him. He is optimistic about the campaign to come.

“What we’ve found,” he said, “as we travel across the state, is people are ready for something different. They don’t want Washington’s problems here in South Dakota, and a lot of people are upset with Congresswoman Noem, as to how the primary shook out. I’ve picked up a lot of Jackley supporters since that time, and a lot of folks said that she really hasn’t done anything in DC, and we don’t think she’s going to do anything as governor.”

One thing Sutton prides himself on is working with all parties concerned. He’s got a knack for it, and he knows how to stand for something on principle, yet compromise to get some good accomplished: “I come from a Republican district and have gotten elected there, which has its own set of challenges similar to the make up of South Dakota. I’ve been successful in reaching across the aisle to build consensus and support, and that’s what I’ve been able to do in this campaign as well.”

Born and raised in Burke, Sutton has spent his life in the heart of Indian country: “I’ve been fortunate to represent Native Americans throughout my eight-year legislative career, and it’s had a big impact on how I look at policy, and I’ve worked really hard to build better lines of communication, and making sure we are focusing on issues that affect all South Dakotans, not just a select few.”

He is well versed on what the key issues are: “That’s why I am such a strong supporter of health care, and better education, and better opportunities for economic development and work force development that really affect all of South Dakota, including our relatives in Indian country.”

When asked what the main problems Indian country faces, Sutton first mentioned “meth and drug problems.” His next concern is health care, but not just how it relates to the Indian Health Service (IHS): “A big impact most people don’t realize, is at the state level, and it relates to Medicaid expansion. Thirty to thirty-five percent of the Medicaid expansion population are Native American, that would be affected if we could expand Medicaid here in South Dakota. I’ve been a big advocate for increased access to health care coverage, you know we almost got that deal done. Governor Daugaard was a proponent of it and I was a big fan as well, it didn’t happen, but I hope to restart that conversation.”

Sutton has worked with Troy Heinert, a Rosebud tribal member to improve Indian education: “(Heinert) has brought legislation that I have supported that gives more opportunities to teach in a culturally appropriate way. That has been really popular and I think it has been really successful.”

As far as the tribal economic woes are concerned, Sutton has plans to create better opportunity: “There’s a real problem with access to investment capital on reservations. That’s something I am willing to look at from the Governor’s Office on Economic Development, and how we handle the funds available to help support some of these groups that want to develop their economy.”

Sutton feels another factor also contributes to economic stagnation: “Some of it, too, is just the lack of awareness from folks about what is offered and what is possible on our reservations. I hope to increase the conversations—and not from a top-down State Governor approach, but from a collaborative approach between tribal government and state government and private sector business—about how we solve some of the problems we have on the reservations.”

Noem’s approaches to Indian issues worry Sutton: “She’s absolutely opposed to increased health care coverage when it comes to Medicaid. She has been very upfront about that. She has also stated she is not going to take a task force collaborative approach in how she governs. I think that is really problematic when you talk about building relationships in Indian Country.

“We have to be able to sit down at the table,” Sutton continued, “and have these conversations to figure out solutions. From what I understand of her approach, I don’t think she’s going to do that. That’s very concerning to me, but we’ve come a long way in our state/tribal relations and I want to continue to bolster that and to build these relationships.”

As far as the environment is concerned, and the threat energy policy and activity poses to Indian Country, Sutton thinks we have to look to an alternative future: “I think we are seeing a shift in energy policy in this country, and you’re starting to see it more and more in South Dakota, towards renewable energy and wind and solar. We have a lot of opportunity there, I think the market is driving it, but we can also encourage it as a state and country and move toward renewable energy. I think it’s more cost effective, better for the environment, for our natural resources, and that’s the direction I’d like to see us continue to move towards.”

The threat posed by the the extensive energy operations in Converse County, Wyoming, are an example of flaring, fracking and uranium exploration. Renewable energy options will not directly curtail these operations, but could, over time, redirect energy policy and activity away from operations local tribes, land owners and environmental groups find alarming.

Throughout Sutton’s comments and plans we see a common thread—a willingness to compromise to actually get something done, but not compromise so much, nothing good comes of the handshake, the idea being to not toss the baby out with the bathwater.

As such Sutton appears to represent a reasoned and rock steady approach to state governance, one that does not seem beholden to special interest and partisan machinations, far less political animal than Noem, and much more public servant oriented. Whether his approach of reasoned compromise can sway GOP voters to cross party lines is what will determine the November election, whether a Democrat can return to the capital after so many decades of GOP domination.

Even if Sutton should win, it will take serious hard work to find productive ways to implement his Indian friendly policies, given the history of state government hostility and tribal noncooperation.


(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at  

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