RAPID CITY, S.D., April 19 -- When Tim Giago, a native of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, decided to run for the Senate as an independent, he did more than shake up the state's tight, closely watched race between Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle and John Thune, a former Republican representative.
He made South Dakota's Indian Country the focal point of the campaign.
Daschle, who had the most to lose from Giago's run, now has the most to gain. After a meeting with Daschle on Saturday, Giago, a nationally syndicated columnist and advocate for Indian causes, said he is withdrawing and throwing his weight behind the Democrat.
Giago, founder of the Lakota Journal and Pueblo Journal, said in an interview Monday: "I laid out what is considered most important to the tribes of South Dakota. I went there as a sounding bell for them. And Tom listened."
Since Giago's candidacy was generating much excitement in Indian Country -- the 70,000 Indians living there make up 10 percent of the state's population -- his withdrawal represents a huge victory for Daschle, who was counting on the Indian vote.
In 2002, Sen. Tim Johnson (D) beat Thune by just over 500 votes but won about 90 percent of Indian Country votes, largely by aggressively courting and registering voters.
While Giago would not go into detail about the issues he and Daschle discussed, he has said that he wanted Daschle to open dialogue on returning the sacred Black Hills to the tribes of the Sioux Nation, and to help remedy the lack of economic opportunities on the state's reservations, the poorest in the country. Giago had expressed distress that Daschle did not seem open to discussing the Black Hills.
Although many Americans are not even aware of the issue, for Indians, the return of the Black Hills is a central theme. The federal government took the land in an 1877 act that violated the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, and Indians have been fighting for it ever since. In 1980, the Supreme Court awarded the tribes $105 million for the loss of the Black Hills. The tribes refused the money, saying the land was never for sale.
At Saturday's meeting here, where Giago is based, Daschle agreed to convene a meeting in August in the Black Hills with tribal leaders and elders from all nine South Dakota reservations. The purpose is to hear their concerns and help address them.
"Senator Daschle looks forward to working with Tim Giago in the campaign and in Washington to address the issues they care so deeply about," said Dan Feiffer, Daschle's campaign spokesman.
Giago had briefly considered running against Daschle in the primary before becoming a far greater threat by becoming an independent to run a general election campaign. His "one horse in the race," he said, was helping the Indian people. Giago said he feels he accomplished what he had set out to do.
"The fact of the matter is that if I hadn't chosen to run as an independent, we wouldn't have gotten these issues on the table," he said. "It really put the pressure on Daschle. . . . So I went to him from a position of power -- which I've never had before, and Indians haven't had before."
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