Indigenous Wire Q&A: U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson proudly shares his 'wasicu' (White man) voice on Indigenous veterans, Columbus Day, and the first Lakota congressman
"‘Wasicu’ is a funny word because I think it can, in certain uses, have a softly comical meaning,” he notes in a wide-ranging interview.
WASHINGTON – In speaking with U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), it’s quickly clear that he knows and cares passionately about American Indian issues.
He’s quite educated on his constituents’ concerns, he works on various levels to include and recognize Native American voices, and he even knows how to poke fun of himself using the Lakota language.
Along with Reps. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), Johnson recently introduced bipartisan legislation to establish a congressional charter for the National American Indian Veterans (NAIV) organization. Such congressional charters — tools of recognition and legitimizing agents — used to be commonplace, but they’ve gone out of fashion, he notes; yet, he presses for one in this instance because it’s the right thing to do.
The non-profit NAIV on the Cheyenne River Reservation advocates for tribal veterans, of which there are approximately 150,000 in the United States today.
“While Congressional Charters have been established for Polish American, Italian American, Jewish, and Black veterans’ groups, currently, no Native veterans’ organization has received a Congressional Charter,” Johnson’s office laments.
The congressman, age 45, realizes that there are many instances where Indian Country has not been treated fairly, including on current issues related to pandemic and infrastructure funding.
Johnson, who’s represented South Dakota’s at-large congressional district since 2019, recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Indigenous Wire. He talked not only about his Native veterans charter legislation, but also about bipartisanship, problems he’s experienced with Nancy Pelosi involving Indian-focused legislation, and whether his support for Native America could cost him votes in his upcoming primary later this year.
Explain what the intention of this charter is all about.
There are 150,000 Native veterans in this country, and Native people serve in the United States military at a higher rate than members of any other ethnic group. It's an incredible tradition. It's an incredible part of the Native culture in many parts of Indian Country and certainly in South Dakota where this Native American and Indigenous veterans nonprofit has existed from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe since 2004. It's time for Congress to step up and re-endorse this incredible effort to make sure that we recognize and provide sufficient support to our Native veterans. There are other groups that have had these charters as well in the past. So we're not asking for something extraordinary so much as we are asking this country to just once again, recognize this service.
Why is this important?
Congress has largely gotten out of the business of doing charters. There has been what has been described as a moratorium in place for quite a while. Legislatively, this is not going to be an easy task, and I think that surprises some people. It's not because the members of Congress don't want to recognize the incredible contributions of Native veterans. It's because Congress is largely out of this business. The thought is that, of course, it's incredibly important to have nonprofits and other groups out doing good work, but it's a little weird to have Congress in the endorsement business. So we've gotten out of it largely, but to the extent that we are going to make an exception in charter granting, I think this is an all together valid and appropriate exception to make.
So what is the benefit of having this kind of endorsement from Congress, a charter like this?
There are a couple of big benefits. One is I think it is valuable for this country to have the elected representatives of this country stand up and say with a clear and clarion voice that we want to publicly acknowledge the importance of this service and the importance of our country making good on our commitments to these veterans. So I think it's important in that way, but it is also important because I do think it provides some additional legitimacy. I think it empowers in a deeper and more meaningful way this group to go out and do their good work when they have this good housekeeping seal of approval, if you will.
You met with some Native veterans recently, what was your conversation about the charter like? What stories did they tell you about Indian military service that really stuck with you?
Anytime I meet with Native veterans – and that happens on a pretty regular basis – I am struck by how much pride there is in their military service to this country. And usually unspoken is the point that they have served their country so ably when their country hasn't always reciprocated with a depth of gratitude. We have an incredibly complicated history with Native American rights in this nation, but that has not diminished the willingness of Indian peoples to serve. It's really a remarkable gift that they have given. And so there is just the pride, it emanates from them the idea that they contributed in a really meaningful way to this country's story. But also, if that's 95 percent of the emotion that's given off, there is some disappointment with that relative lack of recognition. And I think finally, an optimism that something like this charter granting can help to close that gap.
Shawnee Red Bear, a staffer in your D.C. office, last year shared a column on your congressional website noting how proud she is to call what was once known in your state as Columbus Day as Native American Day instead. Do you personally call it Native Heritage Day, or do you call it Columbus Day? That's been a contentious issue in the U.S., and I thought since your staff had written on it, I wanted to find out what you thought about that issue.
This is not an issue of controversy in South Dakota. I mean, as long as Shawnee's been alive, it's been Native American Day that was formally changed by state government in the 1990s. So, yeah, it's a great source of pride to Shawnee and to me, but this is... I mean, nobody in South Dakota called it Columbus Day. It’s just that's not what it is here.
Your veterans charter bill is supported in a bipartisan manner. How important is bipartisanship to you? We're hearing a lot about the importance of bipartisanship nowadays. We've heard about it in the past. To you personally, what does bipartisanship mean?
I don't think either party has a corner on good ideas. And we have a tendency to get the best, most abiding solutions when we work together. We're a pretty evenly divided country, and so in any given election cycle, you might have somebody win 51 percent of the seats in the House or the Senate, but a couple years later it could easily reverse. I don't think we should careen from extreme to extreme every two years. I think we get better policy when we can work together. That has been more true in issues related to Indian Country than in most. When you look at most every piece of important legislation impacting Indian Country and Native peoples in the last 30 years, it's been a bipartisan effort. People like Congressman O'Halleran and Cole and Davids have spent their whole careers doing what they can to fight these fights and advance these causes. Of course, just even with the four of us on this bill, I mean, not only do we have half Democrats, half Republicans, but we also have half enrolled members and half not enrolled members.
It's a beautiful example of America coming together to do the right thing, and bipartisanship is such a key part of that.
You mentioned Reps. Cole and Davids just now. I'm thinking about the current Native members of Congress, including also Markwayne Mullin, and Yvette Herrell. Are you particularly close with any of them? Do you have good relationships with all of them?
Yeah, all those people you mentioned, I talk to on a regular basis. I probably work legislatively most closely with Sharice, but I talk almost every week when I'm in Congress to Markwayne and Tom and even Deb Haaland, while she was in Congress. She came in with Sharice and I, and she was just a great member of that freshman class before she became secretary [of the Interior].
Is it helpful to have their Native voices there in the U.S. Congress?
Absolutely. I mean, America is such an incredibly diverse nation. We have so many different life experiences represented in Congress. So many areas of professional expertise and we are just stronger when we are able to look at issues from a variety of viewpoints.
You gave a good summary of the charter and what you've worked on in terms of that legislation so far, but you've done a lot on other Native-related legislation during your rather short time in Congress. Talk a little bit about what you've been most proud of on that front.
I hate to pick one, so maybe I'll mention three. But Native veterans, again, this comes back to the issue with the incredible service that the Native peoples have provided to this country. We had the very successful VetSuccess on Campus Act that was across the country on so many campuses. This really helped veterans go to post-secondary institutions, make sure that they transitioned to school better, because that can be quite a transition. And also, they walked with them, provided the resources needed to keep retention high – to make sure that veteran students once they got in school were able to stay there and get a degree. That program had not been eligible for tribal colleges, which didn't make any sense. So we were able to get passed out of the U.S. House a few months ago a bill that expanded that program to tribal colleges and universities. That's just really, really important.
Another one would be, I served as floor manager for the reauthorization of the Esther Martinez Native Languages Act. And I think we are losing – not think, I know – we're losing Native speakers at an alarming rate, and there have been so many studies that have shown that when young people are connected to an Indigenous language, that gives them more of a connection to who they are. And the outcomes are really positive. It has a positive impact on their ability to stay in school and get through school and be successful long term. So reauthorizing that, making those dollars available, is really important.
Then also serving as floor manager for a bill that helped with resources to tribal colleges, as well as historically Black colleges and Latino colleges as well. Just making sure that we continue to make good on our commitment to invest in that.
But it's not just those headline grabbers. As I said, we're always trying to work on something. My predecessor in this job, Ben Reifel [Lakota, who served in the First District of South Dakota from 1961-1971], was the first Lakota to represent or to serve in the United States House. We wanted to make sure that the post office where he grew up was named after him. We just thought that we wanted young Native peoples to be in that community and to be reminded that for a decade, South Dakota was represented in the US House by a Lakota, by Ben Reifel. And I think some people maybe shrug off the importance of post offices, but I think these symbolic gestures mean a lot.
You also established the Ben Reifel Internship within your office.
Yeah. Great. You mentioned Shawnee, and she is just a great part of the team, but she's not a one-off. This is an ongoing commitment we have to the Ben Reifel Internship where one of our internships is set aside for somebody who is interested in Native or tribal matters. They serve in our D.C. office. They learn about the federal government and our team learns from them. They work on a lot of issues, a number of which we've mentioned, but they work on a lot of issues related to our legislative portfolio in the related Indian Country.
You mentioned your work on Native language preservation, and I recall you spoke Lakota on the House floor. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that was the first time Lakota had been spoken on the House floor since the 1960s.
Yes, exactly right.
What did you say?
I said, ‘Greetings my brothers and sisters.’ If memory serves, but I also said a number of things. I also used the Lakota word for kind of an extended family, and that's a very poor translation, right? I mean, it's an emotionally deeper term than that. Sprinkled throughout that speech were a couple of those. And there are ways in which that the Lakota language is sprinkled, not just on the House floor. I mean, I probably say the word wasicu, which is a Lakota word for ‘white man,’ 5 or 10 times a year when I'm talking to tribal leaders. Right? And it can be when you show some willingness to learn bits of the language, I think it shows good faith in trying to bridge some of these racial gaps and some of this lack of understanding we sometimes have. And wasicu is a funny word because I think it can, in certain uses, have a softly comical meaning. Right?
You can say it all almost with a soft eye roll, right? And so in that way, I'm softly poking fun at myself, which is also an incredibly rich part of the Lakota culture, which is really heavy and rich with this comic sometimes self– What's the word I'm looking for, when you're putting yourself down?
Yeah, exactly. Deprecating. And so again, I think it shows also an understanding of this incredibly rich cultural history.
Very good. Congressman, you meet with tribal leaders, you have Native staff, you sponsor Native legislation, you have this strong relationships with Natives in Congress. Is that all because you have a big Indian constituency in your state, or do you have other personal reasons for appreciating Native America?
Those are so intertwined, it's a little hard to separate them. Other than I would kind of... Do we do it because we've got a large Indian constituency? I mean, sometimes people think that politicians do things because there's an electoral benefit, right?
And so I would reject that aspect of it because in South Dakota, most Native peoples are registered Democrat or independent. There are not a particularly large number in Indian Country – on reservation anyway – of people who are registered Republican. That's fine, and there are long standing cultural and historical reasons for that. I think there have been changes. I think we're going to continue to see changes because these things are not static. I mean, Indian Country – as the rest of America is – an incredibly dynamic story that's continuing to be told. But we don't do it because there's an electoral gain. We do it because I'm elected to serve all the people of South Dakota. So yeah, there is an aspect of this that is about, obviously this is my job, so let's go do it well. But I also grew up in central South Dakota. There were four Indian reservations within 60 miles of my home. In South Dakota, there are lots of – I don't know the exact number – but somewhere between a third and a half of Native Americans in South Dakota live off reservation. The communities I grew up in Pierre and also Fort Pierre have large numbers of Native students. So these were my friends; these were my classmates; the campaign manager for my first congressional run is an enrolled member. My current campaign attorney is an enrolled member. My finance director is married to an enrolled member. In South Dakota, this is not two populations of, ‘Here are where the Whites are and here's where the Natives are.’ I also care about Native issues because these are my friends and my relatives, and these are the people that I live with.
Pandemic relief funds to tribes have been distributed under the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan. Do you think the money has been distributed in an equitable way? That is, are the rich tribes that we know are out there, are they simply getting richer as a result of some of this pandemic funding while the poor tribes are continuing to struggle? There has been some concerns about the Biden administration's formula, especially under ARPA in the distribution to tribes and in dealing with the differences in the equity of the tribes and the wealth of the tribes – and whether richer tribes are getting more of the share than they should.
Also in addition to that, I mean, there's nothing new about that under the sun, right? But I mean, we do have yet another flash point related to Alaska Native Corporations. And this is always a central question when we start to divvy out dollars. I mean, to what extent should they be eligible for the dollars? We so often have a fixed pot of dollars to send out to Indian Country to make investments, and it is sometimes hard I know for tribal leaders, because they end up fighting within themselves about what type of formula will we use and will we use the HUD numbers or will we use the Census numbers? The internal competition for capital I know wears out tribal leaders. And that's at the heart of what you're asking about, right? So I know the South Dakota tribes have talked to me a lot about those formulas, and they do have some concern. I would also note though that it's not just the formulas, it is also the relative lack of flexibility. And that's where we're trying to be a national leader.
Again, [it’s about] bipartisanship…Carolyn Bordeaux [D-Georgia], she and I have a bill that's already passed to the Senate. The House should have passed it, and it gives tribes additional flexibility both in time and use of the dollars they do have. Because many tribes across the country, and this is true for South Dakota tribes, they have dollars that they can't spend and that were to be spent by the end of the year. So while sometimes they're concerned about other tribes maybe getting more dollars, they're also concerned about the fact that they haven't even been able to spend their own funds yet because of a relatively restrictive approach from Congress. So we are still hopeful that we can get the Johnson-Bordeaux Bill passed out of the House. I mean, if Speaker Pelosi would bring it up on Tuesday, the president could sign it in the law by Wednesday because the Senate's already passed it.
Is there a background there? Why hasn't that moved? It doesn't seem controversial. And Senate has passed it, the Democratic Senate, why not the Democratic House?
That'd be a good question for Speaker Pelosi. I mean, I wouldn't want to speculate other than I think... I don't know. I've had some people tell me that because it wasn't her idea. I don't know that that's true. I'd say one more plausible explanation is that we started to push our bill prior to the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. And it may be that she didn't want any other infrastructure messages or dollars complicating her message about, ‘We have to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill right now.’ But that's passed. That's law. That is done. To me, she should never have allowed flexibility to tribal governments to get in the way. She should never have slowed that down in the first place, but now there would certainly be no reason.
When you mention Alaska Native Corporations, I have to ask you about your relationship with Rep. Young and of course Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan in Alaska. The Alaska delegation has traditionally pushed hard for Alaska Native issues. Do you have a strong relationship with Rep.Young?
I do. I have a very good relationship with Congressman Young. The guy is a legend and of course I've sat in his office, and I have heard his stories. I have been able to learn from him. He and I serve on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee together. And so I also get to see him at work on those issues. He's been such a strong advocate for infrastructure in Indian Country and has accomplished a tremendous number of things on that front. I don't know Sullivan and Murkowski anywhere near as well. Personally, I've had some limited interactions with both of them, but Don Young is a friend.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that you've mentioned, do you firmly believe that it's going to help tribes in your state with their needs? And are you going to be watching to be sure that the $13 billion in funding for tribes under that law is spent equitably by the Biden administration? We mentioned inequity being an issue under the pandemic funding. This is a new source of funding, are you watching closely?
Yeah. Tribal roads, at least in rural America, should be a source of embarrassment to this country. We have under invested in that infrastructure. Again, we've made commitments. In many cases, we have treaty obligations to do right in those rural areas and our infrastructure there is not what it needs to be. I do think, although there are lots of problems with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan, I do think that there will be many good projects that get done in Indian Country as a result of that. That is really good news as far as us being on point. Absolutely, we will be working with tribal leaders to try to make sure that those funds are put out to tribes in a way that that makes the most sense. And I have particular heart for rural tribes because I think their needs are so profound. Much of America doesn't understand how different the tribes on the prairies are and how different their history is from tribes that might be on the East Coast or the South. All tribes have their own, rich history, but the tribes in the northern Great Plains, there's still a tremendous amount of capacity building that we can work together to accomplish.
I'll just give you an example from this week. I was working with one of my colleagues, he wanted me to get on a bill that would help put real dollars into policing in the local law enforcement. Some really good ideas, but tribes were not eligible for the dollars. And so I said, ‘Well, I'm not getting on your bill until we add tribal law enforcement as a legitimate or as an appropriate recipient.’ They made that change for me which I was glad to see, and this was a Democratic member.
Your question as to whether or not we're going to be paying attention and monitoring, we do that with all legislation. We're looking at this and making sure that we're explicitly calling out the ability of tribes to be able to participate, because I think that's an important part of my job.
Will your strong support for Indian Country help or hurt you in your upcoming primary?
Oh, I try not to think about that in those terms, but I think doing a good job... I mean I'm not supposed to conduct my business in a way that brings me electoral success. I'm supposed to conduct my business in a way that's consistent with the Constitution and that makes our country stronger. But I would say South Dakotans of all stripes like people who get things done and like people who appear to be focused on actually getting the work done. Right? They like work horses rather than show horses. And to the extent that we've been able to work with state and tribal leaders to get a lot of legislation passed that helps Indian Country and tribal peoples, I think they appreciate that. I think they respect that. And I think they're likely to reward that.
Does state Rep. Taffy Howard, who plans to challenge you, care about Indian issues like you do?
I don't know Taffy well enough to be able to say that. It isn't the kind of thing that I've heard her talk about publicly. I mean, she comes from Rapid City, which functions as... Rapid City is really an incredible commercial and cultural capital for much of Indian Country. So she certainly comes... It should certainly be the sort of thing that she cares about a great deal, because those are people that she represents and lives with and works with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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