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Opinion. South Dakota’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem, was one of the first governors to endorse Donald Trump’s bid for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. She demonstrated her support for the former president by campaigning for him in Iowa before the January caucus.

It’s no secret Noem, now serving in her second term, wants to be Trump’s running mate in this year’s presidential race. When asked by Newsmax if she would consider an offer from Trump to run as vice president she said: “Oh, absolutely. I would in a heartbeat.”

In the meantime, she is still governor of South Dakota, home to nine federally recognized sovereign tribal nations and about 71,000 Native Americans who represent around 8 percent of the state’s population. 

Unfortunately, Noem's relationship with tribes in South Dakota has been characterized by tension and discord, marked by her adoption of MAGA-style rhetoric and contentious policy decisions. Lately, it’s gotten worse.

Before she was elected governor, Noem held South Dakota’s at-large seat in the House of Representatives. In 2018, she pushed legislation to increase state law-enforcement on Indian reservations, where federal and tribal law enforcement have criminal jurisdiction. Tribes opposed the measure as an attempt to erode tribal sovereignty. 

Since becoming governor in 2019, Noem’s relationship with South Dakota’s Native Americans only worsened, as she employed MAGA-style rhetoric in her dealings with tribes.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Noem cozied up to Trump’s failed pandemic policies and suggested Covid-19 was simply a Democratic plot to take over the country. While most governors backed wearing of masks in order to reduce the spread of the deadly virus, she said they were optional for South Dakota citizens. She even criticized her fellow governors who acted in a more prudent approach to the pandemic.

Two South Dakota tribes — the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe — took matters into their own sovereign hands. They controlled those coming and going from their reservations by closing highways entering and exiting tribal lands. Noem entered a year-long showdown with the tribes by seeking assistance from the Trump White House. 

In September 2021, Noem’s Department of Education tried to scrub more than a dozen Indigenous-centered learning objectives from its new social studies standards before releasing the document to the public. The tribes accused Noem of trying to erase tribal history from the curriculum in public schools. She eventually backed down.

This year, the tensions between Noem and the South Dakota tribes have heated up as she made a series of disparaging comments about tribal leaders and members. 

In January, Noem was criticized by tribal leaders and tribally enrolled South Dakota lawmakers for comments she made about drugs on South Dakota reservations during a speech to lawmakers about the U.S.-Mexico border. In her speech Noem implied Mexican drug cartels were being harbored on reservations.

The MAGA-style rhetoric outraged Oglala Sioux Tribe President Frank Star Comes Out who banished Noem from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Then last month, while speaking at a town meeting in Mitchell, Noem told South Dakotans she wanted to help Native American students, but also took a swipe at Native parents and tribal councils.

“Their kids don’t have any hope,” Noem said. “They don’t have parents who show up and help them. They have a tribal council or a president who focuses on a political agenda more than they care about actually helping somebody’s life look better.”

Tribes throughout the state called Noem’s remarks out for what they were: racism.

“Her remarks were made from ignorance and with the intention to fuel a racially based and discriminatory narrative towards the Native people of South Dakota,” Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Scott Herman said in a statement. “We demand an apology from the governor.”

Last week, Noem sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, and U.S. Comptroller Gene Dodaro, asking for a comprehensive audit of federal funds given to the nine tribes in South Dakota. She sent the letter under the pretense of wanting to help law enforcement on tribal lands.

As much as I'd love to believe that Noem is from the government and wants to help, her request is nothing more than a MAGA-style ploy to get attention. Tribes are already subject to audits. Furthermore, federally recognized tribes are sovereign tribal nations with their own governments. They are not subjects of state governments. 

Nick Estes, an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, told CBS News he sees Noem's adversarial relationship with tribal nations as an attempt to seize a political opportunity and position herself as a strong Republican leader. "It's obvious signaling to Trump," he said.

After centuries of neglect and underfunding by the federal government, programs that support law enforcement and judicial matters on Indian reservations need help. There is a shortage of law enforcement on tribal lands, coupled with high rates of crime. 

If Gov. Noem really wants to assist tribes and their citizens, she should back up her words with actions. She could start by dealing with tribal leaders with respect. Her MAGA-style accusations and paternalistic politics may work with some voters in red-state South Dakota, but it certainly won’t work with tribal officials or Native citizens.   

Using the tribes of South Dakota as a means to play politics in order to secure the vice presidential nomination from Trump is counterproductive to the process of bringing about positive change. 

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].