A Vermillion resident has been chosen as the first holder of an important new position in South Dakota government.
On Friday, Feb. 11, it was announced that Leroy �J.R.� LaPlante has been appointed the state�s first secretary of tribal relations.
LaPlante, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who was born in Eagle Butte, is a practicing attorney in Vermillion and serves as the chief judge and court administrator for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in Ft. Thompson.
�This is really an exciting time for South Dakota,� LaPlante said. �I think South Dakotans are ready for this kind of change, and I look forward to the work that we�re going to be doing. I look forward to developing that relationship.�
The Department of Tribal Relations and the position of secretary were created as a part of Gov. Dennis Daugaard�s Executive Reorganization Order. In the past, the Office of Tribal Government Relations was a unit of the Department of Tourism and State Development.
�By the governor creating this position and this new department, he�s basically saying that there is a relationship between the state and the tribes,� LaPlante said. �I think that�s really important, because I don�t know that everybody really acknowledges that there is a political relationship, a legal relationship, a historical relationship between the state and the tribes.�
As secretary, it will be LaPlante�s primary duty to foster those relationships.
�(The governor) wants that relationship to be respectful,� he said. �Obviously, the tribes and the state can�t agree on everything, but we want to have a relationship where we can at least reach a consensus on some issues and work cooperatively. I think that�s the key. �
�This is being forged out of a whole new, different approach to tribal relations, and so we really don�t have anything to base it off of in terms of a template. So we are in the process of really developing what that role is going to be. Fortunately, I think the governor is really allowing me to help put those in place.�
�I am pleased that J.R. has agreed to join my administration,� Daugaard said in a press release. �J.R. is well-respected across the state, and he will help me to work with our tribes toward a better future for all South Dakotans. I know he will do a great job as our first secretary of tribal relations.�
LaPlante said the state wants the process of opening the lines of communication to be �very deliberate.� The first part of that process will involve meeting with members of all the tribes that reside here.
�We don�t want to just engage willy-nilly in the process, just go out and meet with the tribes for the sake of saying we�ve met with the tribes,� he said. �I think we want the meetings to be substantive. We want the meetings to be about critical issues. We want to be able to gauge what we�re doing and measure our work. �
�As we grow, I think the responsibilities are going to grow with the department and the secretary�s position,� he said.
LaPlante said he�s ready to get started.
�It�s such a tremendous opportunity,� he said. �What I�m looking forward to most of all is just being out there in the communities with the tribes, sitting down and picking their brains and (finding out) what their concerns are.�
He said he�s also looking forward to meeting with the youths who reside on South Dakota�s nine reservations, as they make up one of the largest demographics on those sites.
�There�s all this grown-up stuff that we talk about a lot � jurisdictional issues, checkerboard issues, tribal/state agreements, gaming � there are all these big, grown-up issues, but we don�t want to forget that a large demographic on the reservations are youth, and they have their own issues,� LaPlante said.
Although he is from Eagle Butte, LaPlante had been living in California with his wife and daughter. They came to Vermillion in 2006 when he and his wife decided to attend law school.
He said he is glad to be a part of a process that may usher the state into a new era.
�If you talk to (legislators) that have served the reservation and people who have not served on the reservation, they would say that the number-one issue between the state and the tribes is a lack of communication,� LaPlante said. �I think this is going to create a new avenue for effective communication between the state and tribes.�