Off reservation Santee Sioux members seeking voting rights

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Local members of the Santee Sioux Nation are frustrated with what they see as a lack of representation in their tribal government. Currently off reservation members have no voting rights on Council decisions.

On Friday, about a dozen members gathered at the Four Directions Community Center to add together their collected petition signatures — in the hope of creating a vote to amend the tribe’s constitution to allow those who live off the reservation to vote.

The vote, called a secretarial election, would be open to all members of the tribe.

The Santee Sioux reservation is in Knox County, Nebraska, on the south bank of the Missouri River. Daniel Bearshield, of Sioux City, said more members of the tribe live off the reservation than on it, with an estimated 1,600 living in the tri-state area.

According to 2010 census data, the village of Santee, Nebraska, has 346 residents, but about 2,660 total members are enrolled in the tribe, about 800 of which live on the 172-square-mile reservation.

Membership is determined by birth or by council decisions in cases of adoption. Those who marry a member but have less than one-fourth degree of Indian blood are not automatically made members, according to the tribe’s constitution.

Bearshield said he and his fellow members are seeking voting rights so they can decide who is elected to the tribal council, among other matters. Currently, only residents of the reservation who have lived there at least six months, among other factors, can vote in those elections.

The group needed 25 signatures to get the voting issue on the council agenda for Monday, Bearshield said. On Friday night, they had collected nearly 100 signatures.

“I visited the reservation recently,” Bearshield told the group. “I said, we’re not doing this for money,we want to be a part of the future of our people. We matter, too.”

The tribe owns and operates the Ohiya Casino & Resort, east of Niobrara, Nebraska, and the tribal government is headquartered in Niobrara.

Speaking from personal experience, Bearshield said the reason his family moved to Sioux City and not the reservation was because of availability of jobs.

“But just because we don’t live there, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t matter when it comes to elections,” he said.

Bearshield has hopes such influence could eventually establish a tribe-owned community center and social programs, similar to how the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska has offices in several locations to serve its members.

Tribal Chairman Roger Trudell said the issue of residency-based voting rights has been brought up several times in the past, and it’s a difficult issue to deal with.

“Some tribes allow it, some don’t. We’ve faced this before, and it’s hard to reach all their needs,” Trudell said.