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Strong Native Voice in South Dakota Legislature
~ Mary Burrows

Senator Red Dawn Foster, who represents

District 27 in the South Dakota legislature,

has been named Executive Director of the

housing development subsidiary of the

South Dakota Native Home-Ownership

Coalition. Foster will form and launch the

subsidiary that will support efforts of the

tribal communities to provide safe and

affordable housing for Native Americans

in South Dakota.

Red Dawn Foster was born on Pine Ridge

Reservation of Oglala and Din`e heritage.

She has served District 27, which includes Bennett, Haakon, Jackson, and Oglala Lakota counties, and encompasses the entire Pine Ridge Reservation, since January of 2019.

The South Dakota Native Home-Ownership Coalition was created in 2013. It is a group of entities that works to facilitate building strong and healthy Native communities through opportunities for home ownership.

Sharon Vogel, Coalition board chairwoman, said, “We are thrilled to have Red Dawn on board. This is a milestone in the formation of the Coalition’s housing development subsidiary and a critical step to increasing our overall sustainability and furthering our mission.”

Regarding her new responsibility, Foster declared, “Housing is the foundation to economic development and overall health and wellness of families. I'm excited to be part of helping Native communities leverage resources and find innovative solutions.”

Foster holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of Colorado at Denver and a Master's of Business Administration from the University of Notre Dame. She has 15 years' experience working with tribes in community and economic development.

Politically, Foster began running for office in 2016, when she and a running mate ran for the South Dakota House, only to lose to Republican candidates. That tide turned during the Democratic primary in 2018, when she won 55.6% of the vote. She subsequently has gone on to win every election since then with over 50% of returns. Because of legislative limits, she is eligible to serve one more term in the Senate and can stand for election again in 2024.

Covert racism surfaced prior to Foster, and fellow Lakota Peri Pourier, being seated in the Legislature in 2022, when the state residency of both women was challenged by two Republican legislators representing District 30 (Rapid City), one of whom later had her own integrity issues. Senate investigations found that the women were eligible as they had been legal residents of South Dakota for at least the previous two years. South Dakota Senate Majority Leader, Kris Langer (R) said, “As far as the Senate caucus goes, we are satisfied with the information we've gotten and plan to let the Senator serve.”

Senator Foster vociferously campaigns for the Native vote in South Dakota. Without representation in the Legislature, Native voices go unheard, and Native issues unaddressed. Representation also includes blocking legislation that would have a negative imapct on the Native community. She is passionate about the South Dakota Department of Social Services (DSS) foster care system, which disproportionately removes Native children from family homes and into the system. Sixty percent of children in foster care in South Dakota are Indigenous, while Natives only comprise 10% of the population. Extreme poverty is often the “reason” given for such removals.

She introduced a bill into the state Senate which precipitated the formation of the Indian Child Welfare Task Force, a 17-member group that includes lawmakers, representatives of the state's nine Native tribes, and officials from DSS. Many children removed from Native homes go on to be over-represented in the prison system. Some suffer mental trauma and anguish and have life-long scars from being removed from their parents. Others go on to deal with addiction issues at higher rates than other groups.

“Something is not working,” Senator Foster told a South Dakota House Judiciary Committee. “This task force will work to figure out what that is.”

A foster child horror story arose around the 2022 state election cycle in South Dakota. A Republican candidate running for Senate in District 26 (includes the Rosebud reservation) against Demorcrat Shawn Bordeaux (Lakota) was arrested, and later convicted, of child grooming behaviors. His victim was a Native girl who had been fostered when she was ten years old and later adopted into his family. She broke her silence to a friend whose father was in law enforcement. The perpetrator was not removed from the ballot (They were already printed.) but he justifiably lost.

Senator Foster believes a return to some of the traditional Lakota family values, where there “are no single parents” and the extended family and community participate in raising the children, is one vital solution. Foster parents need to come from within the tiospaye.

With regard to her Senate presence among her people, she has made a special effort to engage the Native youth who come to visit the Capitol and other legislative buildings in Pierre, South Dakota. These were formerly places where Native youth did not feel welcome. She feels it is important to normalize those spaces that, while not created for them, have voices that represent them, and for her to set an example of what they could become.

She has also sponsored bills relating to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons movement; for Native Rights, including the waiving of fees for Native Americans at State parks and for hunting and fishing licenses; and she advocates for the inclusion of Native American history in school curricula and for the expansion of Medicaid services.

Since her seating in 2019, Foster has served on state Senate Health and Human Services, Military and Veterans Affairs, Agricultural and Natural Resources, Commerce and Energy, Local Government, and Transportation committees.

During the 2022 session, she also served on the Agricultural Land Assessment Task Force, a Rules Review, a Study on Juvenile Justice, and State Tribal Relations interim committees.

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                                                           Photo courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations