Michael B. Jandreau, the visionary leader of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota for almost 40 years, passed away last month at the age of 71. Known to all as “Mike” he believed that Indian Tribes had to establish a private sector economy on the Reservations if they were to participate in the American dream. The historic treaties of the 1800’s between Tribes and the United States, while still very important, were not enough to prepare Indian people for the 21st century. For rural Tribes, that means a focus on agriculture.
Jandreau testified before Congress and the South Dakota Legislature many times in support of Tribal sovereignty but he also believed that the treaties were not a business plan. The Tribes needed to develop a private sector economy to benefit all Tribal members. In 2004, he made history as a Tribal Chairman by telling the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs: “Sovereignty is the key to tribal existence. But, in the long run, for sovereignty to survive, there must be economic sovereignty as well. We must develop a private sector economy.”
Jandreau again emphasized the importance of the private sector when he addressed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs a few years later: “It is painful to read The World is Flat and to read that the United States is outsourcing jobs to China and India when many Indian Reservations have an unemployment rate over 80% and a third world standard of living.”
Tribes located in the Missouri River Valley may face the most difficult challenge of all Reservations given their remote locations. The unemployment rates on rural Reservations, along with social indicators like infant mortality, diabetes, and suicide rates, are closer to those of the third world than those of the United States. Tribal members face the Hobson’s choice of leaving their families and culture or staying on the Reservation and a life with less potential than other Americans. Only a private sector economy can solve these problems and agriculture has the best potential in these rural areas.
Mike foresaw the reservation’s agriculture potential not only in growing larger volumes of agricultural commodities on Tribal and Reservation lands, but also in adding value to those commodities on the Reservation itself. Processing the commodities created good jobs for Tribal members and pride in what was produced in the name of the Tribe.
Under Jandreau’s leadership, Lower Brule established a successful Farm Corporation and one of the most diverse and innovative economies of any Reservation in the Nation. The Lower Brule Farm Corporation grows edible beans, has a commercial buffalo herd and is the largest producer of popcorn in the country. The farm has expanded to some 40,000 acres with 10,000 acres under irrigation. They sell popcorn nationwide to the major brands and also market under their own brand name “Lakota Foods.”
Jandreau successfully urged the Congress to enact the Lower Brule Infrastructure Development Trust Fund Act, the Wildlife Habitat Restoration Act and the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place, among other pieces of legislation. Wakpa Sica seeks to help all Tribes of the Great Sioux Nation by providing support for Tribal Courts in order to attract investment to the Reservations.
His unfulfilled dream was an Indian Agriculture Act (IAA). Upon his motion, the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution urging the United States Congress to “make the Indian Agriculture Act a title in the 2012 Farm Bill.”
While pieces of an IAA were included in the last Farm Bill, Jandreau always looked to the future. Rural, agriculture-based Tribes need extension services, loan guarantees, irrigation, infrastructure, and better internet, among other things, to underpin a farm economy. South Dakota State University and Mike were working together to improve extension services on all South Dakota Reservations.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been very responsive to Tribes, but to solve a challenge of this magnitude, it will take a Presidential initiative that brings together all Departments of Government. The White House Rural Council has established a focus on Tribes for this exact reason.
Jandreau proposed paying for increased services by using a portion of the revenue from the sale of electricity generated by the dams along the Missouri. His thinking was that the water belonged to Indians (under the Winters Doctrine), the dams flooded Tribal land and, therefore, the revenue should be shared with the Tribes. The Western Area Power Administration, WAPA, earns a billion dollars a year from the sale of electricity. The revenue is not shared with the Tribes and, in fact, the Tribes have to pay for electricity.
Mike received many awards and commendations over his life but his true legacy lies not in the past but in his vision for the future: A comprehensive Indian Agriculture Act, completing the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place, attracting private capital to the Reservations, and distributing the Keepseagle vs. USDA litigation funds to the farmers who were damaged. As Mike noted in closing his testimony to Congress, “The Reservations are a part of the United States, but we are not a part of the U.S. economy.”
Marshall Matz started his career with South Dakota Legal Services on the Crow Creek Reservation before moving to the Senate Committee on Agriculture. He currently specializes in agriculture at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.