VERMILLION — Leroy “J.R.” LaPlante couldn’t ask his predecessor for advice on serving as the state’s Secretary of Tribal Relations.
That’s because there was no predecessor.
LaPlante has served as the state’s first Secretary of Tribal Relations since early 2011. He is resigning from the position, effective Aug. 1, to accept a position as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Sioux Falls office.
LaPlante graduated in 2009 from the University of South Dakota Law School in Vermillion. He worked as a Vermillion attorney after graduation.
In his new position, he will work with the U.S. attorney’s criminal division. He will lead the effort to ensure safety in Indian Country by addressing the high crime rates in a number of tribal communities.
“It has been an honor to serve my state and the tribes as secretary, and I want to thank Gov. (Dennis) Daugaard for the vision he showed in creating this department,” he said.
“I have loved my time as secretary, and (I) will continue to build upon the relationships I have made as I embark on a new challenge in public service as an assistant United States attorney.”
Daugaard announced LaPlante’s resignation Wednesday in a press release.
“I want to thank Secretary LaPlante for his service,” the governor said. “Thanks to J.R.’s efforts, we have continued the important work of strengthening the bonds between state and tribal governments, and of building relationships with tribal leaders. I wish J.R. the very best as he assumes his new role.”
LaPlante told the Press & Dakotan he appreciates the trust he received in forging the newly created cabinet position.
“I am thankful to Gov. Daugaard and Lt. Gov. (Matt) Michels for their friendship and mentorship, and for giving me this opportunity to serve South Dakota,” he said.
The Secretary of Tribal Relations isn’t a one-time position that now ends, LaPlante told the Press & Dakotan.
“The governor will continue the secretary’s position, and I will be assisting his office in finding my successor,” he said. “We plan on doing an extensive search as he did before my hiring, and we are confident that we will find the right person for the job.”
In his new position, LaPlante will head up the program known as the Community Prosecution and Outreach Initiative in Indian Country. In addition, he will handle some Indian Country cases.
“U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson introduced his Criminal Prosecution Strategy in August 2010, and he was seeking an attorney to continue implementing the strategy,” LaPlante told the Press & Dakotan.
“I applied for the position announcement, and I am humbled to have been selected. I am excited at the opportunity to continue public safety work in Indian Country, only now on the federal side.”
Johnson could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
LaPlante and Johnson have worked together for years. Even before LaPlante began working as Secretary of Tribal Relations, he and Johnson discussed law enforcement issues in Indian Country. Those discussions included the USD Law School’s work with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe on legal codes.
Johnson, a USD Law School graduate, had already offered the initial Secretary of Tribal Relations — whoever it was — a seat on a task force that worked with the U.S. Attorney’s office.
LaPlante, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, received his bachelor’s degree from Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn. After graduating from USD Law School, he maintained a law practice in Vermillion, specializing in American Indian law.
He also served as the chief judge and court administrator for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in Fort Thompson. In addition, he had served as an administrative officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
In early 2011, newly-elected Gov. Dennis Daugaard created the state’s first cabinet-level secretary for tribal relations. LaPlante submitted his application for the position and was chosen after a final interview with the governor.
“I was appointed Feb. 11. That was a very historic day for South Dakota,” LaPlante told the Press & Dakotan at the time. “There is nothing comparable in South Dakota or in much of the nation. This is new territory.”
As the new secretary, LaPlante knew he had to bridge a chasm that existed between Indians and non-Indians. “There are people who all their lives have lived 15 to 20 miles from a reservation and have never set foot on it,” he said at the time.
During his three-year tenure, LaPlante worked to fix fences where misunderstandings had occurred for years. He told the Press & Dakotan that he sought to implement mediation and conflict resolution around the state.
Those efforts included meetings among state, county and tribal officials concerning highway signage in Charles Mix County. The parties reached an agreement that recognized the Yankton Sioux’s historical presence.
While those issues tended to draw headlines, LaPlante used his secretary’s role to benefit Indian County in other ways. He and Agriculture Secretary Lucas Lentsch spoke with the Press & Dakotan about efforts to increase agricultural opportunities on the reservations and elsewhere.
LaPlante said on Wednesday he feels a solid foundation has been laid in addressing critical needs in Indian Country.
“I am very satisfied that we created respectful relationships between tribal and state leaders and a solid government-to-government working relationship on key issues like housing, economic development, public safety and human services, to name a few,” he said.
LaPlante alluded to the fact that no blueprint existed when he took on the newly created secretary’s role. However, he believes the cabinet-level office has accomplished its mission of raising American Indian issues to a new level in state government.
“I am confident that we fulfilled the governor’s vision of establishing a Department of Tribal Relations that helped make state government more accessible to the tribes, that served as an advocate for Native Americans, while effectively creating state-tribal partnerships,” he said.
“But, I am most proud of the fact that we helped tribal, state and local units of government resolve disputes, to better understand one another and find common ground, and to work cooperatively in order to achieve their mutual interests and goals.
“This is a testament to the human spirit in all of us, that ultimately, we desire peace and want to make South Dakota a better place.”