The Santee Sioux Nation is the current home to many descendants of the Wahpekute Band of the Dakota Nation, on whose land our office is located. Kameron Runnels, Vice Chairman of the Santee Sioux Nation Tribal Council, kindly gave his time to answer questions in an interview with Improve Group Chief Practice Officer Becky Stewart. Check out Part II below. And you can read Part I here and read Part II here!
We want to thank Kameron for his time for the interview—as well as giving advice on how to pay our land tax to the Santee Sioux Nation in acknowledgement of being on its land. We invite our neighbors to do the same. Donations can be made to:
INTERVIEW WITH KAMERON RUNNELS, VICE CHAIRMAN OF SANTEE SIOUX NATION - PART III
Question: For Part III, we pick up where Kameron left off in responding to, “What would you like folks to know about the Santee Sioux Nation right now?”
Answer: One of the other really big issues in our community right now is clean drinking water. We do not have clean drinking water. The water contains very high levels of manganese. Boiling water does not work, and it will only make it worse. Consuming this water over long periods of time can be harmful to a person, especially infants and elderly people. Ever since I can remember there has been an issue with our water supply. It is a crisis for our community that we are trying to solve. With the assistance of the Indian Health Service, we have been drilling for sources of better water but have not been successful in finding any; our local sources have contamination from farm runoff, and where pockets of water are found there is just not enough to sustain a community. So we have a quality and quantity problem when water is found. Right now the Indian Health Service has exhausted their efforts of drilling for water. Our next step is to complete a feasibility study on a water treatment facility. However, if we are to go with the water treatment facility, we know it will cost millions of dollars to maintain. There is another solution which would bring water from Ft. Randall or the Randall water district in South Dakota by a pipeline. This project would benefit our tribe and possibly many of the surrounding communities because they experience drinking water problems too. Either way, these projects will cost tens of millions of dollars. We are in a water crisis and have officially been under a no drink order since 2019. We have spoken with many government officials, the Secretary of Interior, the Secretary of Treasury, FEMA, and the Nebraska State Legislature, asking for assistance. As of today we have not been assisted, other than federal agencies like EPA telling us our water is bad and we need to fix it.
Every two weeks, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sends down about 20 pallets of bottled water, which is distributed throughout the reservation. Of course, we had to complete an application process to receive bottled water. This is temporary help but not a solution. An effort this year in the Nebraska Legislature to fund access to clean water advanced but the governor refused to sign it. We want to find funding for a pipeline from the Fort Randall Dam in South Dakota to provide clean water or find some other solution that would not cost the tribe tens of millions of dollars.
Housing is another area of concern for us. We see overcrowding and aging homes that need massive electrical and plumbing upgrades. We don’t have resources like apartment complexes, though hardly anyone here owns their own home. About 15-20 years ago, the housing authority built 10 homes for people to buy and own. I would like to see something like that again, like 20-30 homes. An apartment complex would also help our people, or if 10 or 20 trailer/modular homes were purchased and tribal members given the opportunity to rent to own or somehow come up with a payment plan for members to own homes. Our housing authority has a waiting list of 53 people, and some of those are probably families with over three or four people. Where are all these people staying or living at now? We have many houses where two families live in a two- or three-bedroom home. With Covid-19, we have seen the effects of what having people crowded together in one home could do. The population of our community is only about 500 people. About every home has had COVID--as of Spring 2022, there had been 500 cases of Covid in our community.
In education, we want to have more Native teachers; that would help our kids concentrate, improve academically, and look up to their teachers. Many teachers here are non-Native or Non-Dakota. This is another place where scholarships could be important. We have seen more students going to college in the last 10 years; we are encouraging our people to get educated, choose a career, and come back here to help our community grow. Or even partner with the tribe to start a business on and off the reservation.
We have also been working on economic development. We have five businesses and a casino. The casino doesn’t make a tremendous amount of money, but it employs tribal members—80% of casino staff are tribal members. We are not sure what will happen next with the State of Nebraska allowing gaming across the state.
During the 20th century, we lost a lot of language and traditions. We didn’t have our school to teach our children the language and many people left in order to find work. Like many tribal nations across the country, youth were forced to attend boarding schools where Dakota language was forbidden, hair was cut, and children as young as 5 and 6 years old were forced to live in a dorm hundreds of miles away from their parents and family. Children grew up fearing to speak their language, fearing to practice traditions, and when they grew older, they did not want to pass on the language or traditions to their kids, because they thought they would go through that trauma and difficulty if they disobeyed in boarding schools. Such a horrific era for all tribes, but in the last 10-20 years, we have seen a revival of language and traditions. We have a community college teaching intensive language class, and language is being taught in our K-12 school. Language is the heartbeat of our tribe, and it could be our answer for getting back a lot of our old traditions, relearning those ways.
Question: How can those who are living on your traditional lands best support the Nation?
Answer: Minnesota is our traditional home. Is there a way for colleges and universities in this area to offer free tuition to high school students from here, provide scholarships for Dakota students? In addition to that, a support group or support staff is important. When I went to Winona State, I was by myself. There were no Native American students there. I wish there was a support staff who could have recruited or helped connect me to other students I could relate to. I feel students today would benefit greatly from support like that, especially if they are moving 5 or 6 hours away to live on their own. We need more professionals, attorneys, doctors, teachers, and entrepreneurs that could help our tribe grow educationally and economically.
Today, Dakota people are scattered all over. If you are ever on a vacation, stop by Fort Thompson, Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, Devils Lake in North Dakota, Fort Peck in Montana, all the Dakota reserves in Canada, these are Dakota people too. Their ancestors fled Minnesota and never returned and live exiled from their traditional lands in Minnesota. Travel to other Dakota communities. All of us have similar problems.
Question: Do you have any advice for people seeking to learn more about the past and present of your Nation?
Answer: Most of us, especially those of us on the Tribal Council, are open to doing things like this. We have a museum upstairs here. We are happy to welcome anyone to visit or learn. We invite you to travel out, to see what it is actually like here. Visit programs and business, talk to people. There are many stories about our past and present that need to be shared. Come learn about our history, culture, and current issues we have here today.