Tribes blast South Dakota governor’s claim that leaders are benefitting from drug cartels

Relations between South Dakota tribes and Republican Governor Kristi Noem have long been tense, but have become even more contentious recently as Noem has pointedly criticized tribal leaders, accusing some of profiting from the drug trade and their liabilities towards children on reservations.

In speeches at community forums, Noem has condemned the state’s tribal leaders for being more interested in hurting her politically and profiting from drug cartels than in improving the lives of children and others amid persistent poverty on reservations.

“We have a number of tribal leaders who I believe are personally benefiting from the presence of the cartels and that’s why they attack me every day,” Noem said at a forum in Winner last month. “But I’m going to fight for the people who actually live in these situations, who call and text me every day and say, ‘Please, dear governor, please come help us in Pine Ridge. We are afraid.”

Even tribal leaders accustomed to rocky relations with the governor were left baffled by the allegations.

“How dare the governor claim that Sioux tribal councils do not care about their communities or their children, and worse, that they are involved in nefarious activities?” said Frank Star Comes Out, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose tribe banished Noem from the Pine Ridge Reservation earlier this year and is suing the federal government for more law enforcement resources to address crime on the reservation.

As Janet Alkire, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, put it in a statement: “Governor Kristi Noem’s wild and irresponsible attempt to connect tribal leaders and parents with Mexican drug cartels is a sad reflection of her fear-based politics that do nothing to bring people together. to solve problems.”

In her comments, Noem expressed frustration over the ongoing problems on the reservations and desperation to help, but others wonder why the governor now appears to be picking fights with the tribes. They note that tribal members typically favor Democratic candidates in the otherwise conservative state and speculate that Noem’s tough stance is intended to impress presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has mentioned Noem as a potential vice presidential candidate. running mate.

Michael Card, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Dakota, speculated that Noem’s comments could go back to her views on southern border security and support for Trump.

Noem has risen quickly in her political career, winning every race she has run, Card said, drawing a “link” between Noem and Trump in that “we like strong people, and this is a strong woman.”

Some tribal leaders also point to Noem’s support of Trump.

“She’s trying to outsmart Trump by saying something crazy about Native Americans, because she knows we’ve had a long history of conflict with the state, and she thinks that by saying something that could become national, Trump will might elevate it a little higher. and elect her to his team, which is sad,” said Senator Shawn Bordeaux, a former tribal council member of the Rosebud Sioux.

No one denies that drug and alcohol abuse is an endemic problem at some points, but Noem has provided no evidence linking drug cartels to tribal leaders. Her spokesman, Ian Fury, said in an email that the “presence of drug cartels on Native American reservations” has been documented by the news media for years, but did not respond to requests for more details.

In response to questions about drug cartels, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota said in a statement that it is working with tribal, local and state officials, but did not specify whether cartels were active on reservations. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office or declined to comment.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior and other federal officials last week, Noem called for audits of federal funds given to South Dakota’s nine tribes to understand how the money was spent. The Interior Ministry declined to comment.

Also last week, Noem requested a meeting with Oglala Sioux tribal officials, offering to help resolve the problems facing their reservation. She made a similar request in February. Fury did not respond to an email asking if the tribe has responded.

The governor also has tried to reach leaders of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Crow Creek Sioux Tribe without success, Fury said.

“She’s still not getting a response from any of those tribes. But she enjoys all the conversations she has with their community members – she has appreciated their encouragement and support,” Fury said.

The dispute continues a long history of contentious relations between South Dakota’s tribes and the government, dating back to the 19th century, when some of the most intense fighting between Native Americans and U.S. troops took place in the state.

More recently, efforts in the 1950s to “terminate” or revoke federal responsibility and governance of tribes led to tensions, although ultimately no tribe in South Dakota was terminated, says Sean Flynn, professor and chair of history at the Dakota Wesleyan University, and an enrollee. member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.

Flynn said he thinks Noem could use her voice and position to help tribes get more federal support to address reservation issues, instead of “scolding” tribal leaders and parents.

“It doesn’t seem like a formula to address the problem of drug use on reservations,” he said.