Noem doubles down on cartel comments

By John Hult

South Dakota Searchlight

Posted 5/20/24

PIERRE — At the end of a week in which two more tribal nations voted to ban her from their lands, Gov. Kristi Noem called on tribal leaders to partner with state law enforcement to battle drug …

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Noem doubles down on cartel comments


PIERRE — At the end of a week in which two more tribal nations voted to ban her from their lands, Gov. Kristi Noem called on tribal leaders to partner with state law enforcement to battle drug activity on reservations. 

The governor was flanked by her tribal relations secretary and newly hired tribal law enforcement liaison. She spoke next to a poster-sized quote on the influence of drug cartels in Indian Country from Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman Frank Star Comes Out. The same quote, delivered in December to congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., was also displayed on a big-screen television in the Capitol’s Rushmore Room prior to the start of the press conference.

In the comment, Star Comes Out noted that his tribe is reliant on insufficient federal funding for public safety. “We believe this federal neglect has resulted in the cartel moving on to our reservation, an increase in overdoses, and a proliferation of guns on our school properties,” he said, in part.     

The governor again called on tribes to “banish the cartels” instead of voting to banish her, as government bodies at eight of the nine tribes in the state have now done.

She also pledged to help the tribes with public safety issues.

“Banishing me does absolutely nothing to solve this problem,” Noem said. “All it does is help those who are perpetuating horrible violence and crimes against the people that are citizens of the state of South Dakota.”

Former tribal police chief: ‘We need help’

Tribal Relations Secretary Dave Flute, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, read off a series of comments he said the governor’s office has received by the hundreds from tribal members.

“Governor Noem is speaking the truth of what is happening across the state, including in our tribal communities,” Flute said. “She’s speaking out because she cares about the safety of our people. But don’t take it from her. And don’t take it from me.”

Flute read comments from people who, in turn, accused tribal council members of being “some of the biggest drug dealers on the reservation,” described being targeted by cartel members in a casino, said cartel members have posed as dairy farm workers and said that tribal leaders — those who have voted to ban the governor — do not speak for all tribal members. 

Earlier this week, Noem announced her hiring of Algin Young, formerly the Oglala Sioux Tribe police chief, as her tribal law enforcement liaison. The longtime Indian Country law officer told the assembled reporters that he supports Noem because of his experience leading an overworked, understaffed department working to fend off a spike in violence.

He said the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety, in search of a new permanent chief since his contract expired last month, was averaging “two and a half gun calls a day.”

“I take the position of the governor, because her position is that we need help,” Young said.

Federal issue

Noem and the others on hand, including sheriffs from two counties with reservations in their borders, tied public safety troubles to federal inaction and a lack of funding for law enforcement.

The governor told reporters she’d just returned from a trip Thursday to the U.S.-Mexico border, where 20 South Dakota National Guard members are currently working in the latest of several state missions there since Noem took office. 

Noem has been speaking about alleged connections between the border, cartels and reservations since January, when she returned from another trip to the border and delivered a speech to a joint session of the Legislature.  

Illegal narcotics like methamphetamine and fentanyl flow across that border and into the United States under the direction of drug cartels, she said, as do criminal actors bent on profiting through drugs and violence.

President Joe Biden’s policies are to blame, she said.

“We have seen an infiltration of dangerous individuals, people that have come into this country that are on the known terrorist watch list,” she said. “People that have been incarcerated in other countries that are perpetuating violence against others.”

Noem and others said that drugs and violence have been an issue for the whole of South Dakota, but that the influence has been particularly impactful for reservations.

“It doesn’t just affect the United States,” said Sen. Mike Walsh, R-Rapid City, a former narcotics detective who accompanied Noem to the border. “It affects South Dakota directly. And it was evident as we spoke with the Border Patrol, as we spoke with the soldiers that see it every day. They see the changes that have occurred in the past few years.”

Law enforcement training

The federal government has also failed Indian Country by failing to fully fund treaty-mandated law enforcement obligations, Noem argued. She pointed out that the Oglala Sioux Tribe has sued the federal government for that failure, and she referenced her recent decision to fund a special training academy specifically for tribal recruits.

Noem said between 13 and 15 recruits have expressed interest in the summer training course, and that “we’ll have a full class.”

Most officers in reservation communities are expected to attend a 13-week training academy in Artesia, New Mexico. Tribal officers can and do get trained in South Dakota, but there are limited slots in basic training courses, and even those who complete state training are expected to spend two weeks in Artesia afterward.

For the new course, set to begin on June 3, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials have agreed to come to South Dakota to offer a two-day version of that two-week portion of the training.

U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds and Rep. Dusty Johnson, both Republicans, urged the BIA to do that. Both have pushed to place a permanent BIA training facility for the Great Plains in South Dakota.

About 10 minutes before the Friday press conference in Pierre, Rounds’ office sent a press release on tribal law enforcement funding. In it, the senator said he’d joined 11 of his colleagues in sending a letter to the Senate Appropriations Interior Subcommittee urging the members to “support robust funding for Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Public Safety and Justice Law Enforcement programs” in the fiscal year 2025 budget. South Dakota Republican John Thune was among the signers.

“Tribal law enforcement agencies have been under-resourced and under-staffed for decades and they are now being asked to face a new, dangerous threat posed by these cartels and criminal organizations,” the senators wrote.

Relationships damaged

The press conference followed a troubled two weeks of tribal relations for Noem. Early last week, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate – for which Flute was once chairman – voted to ban Noem from its lands. As with the tribes that had voted to ban her prior to the Sisseton vote, tribal leaders tagged the governor’s comments at a March town hall in Winner alleging that tribal officials are “personally benefiting” from cartels. Tribal leaders have also cited comments from a March town hall in Mitchell, where Noem said Native American children on reservations lack hope, and that their parents aren’t there for them.

A few days after the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe voted to ban Noem, the Business and Claims Committee of the Yankton Sioux Tribe voted to endorse a ban. This week saw votes to ban the governor by the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, the latter of which had opted not to endorse a ban earlier this year. 

The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe is the only one of the state’s nine Native nations that has yet to cast such a vote. Its leadership set an emergency meeting for Saturday to discuss the possibility of a ban. 

On Friday, Noem repeated a line she’s used in past discussions on the issue: that she keeps calling tribes, and they keep ignoring her.

“They all have my personal cell phone number,” she said. 

The governor has repeatedly said that she wants to help through mutual law enforcement aid, noting that Native nations in South Dakota struggle with jurisdictional challenges that prevent tribal police from enforcing state law and state police from enforcing tribal law. The posterboard quote from President Star Comes Out referenced the same challenge.

Noem rattled off a list of mutual aid agreements outside the law enforcement realm on Friday, ranging from tax collection agreements to child support payment distribution. 

“On Pine Ridge alone, our Game Fish and Parks conservation officers conduct joint operations with tribal COs all the time,” Noem said. “Law enforcement mutual aid agreements will go a long way to help restore safety and order.”

When asked Friday how she intends to repair relationships, the governor pointed to Flute and Young. Those advisers have faced tribal issues from positions of tribal authority, just like the leaders now voting to ban her.

“They’ve sat in their shoes,” she said. “They’ve been there and seen the challenges. And I’m open to new ideas. If they want to sign an agreement that looks different than what the state has done before, I’m all ears.”

Tribal leader responds

South Dakota Searchlight reached out Friday to leaders of all the tribes that have voted to ban the governor, but did not hear back from most immediately.

Lower Brule Sioux Tribal Chairman Clyde Estes said what stood out most from the press conference was its ending, when a reporter asked Noem if she had any intention of apologizing for her remarks about Native American children.

That particular comment was a last straw moment for Estes.

“She heard the question and walked out,” Estes said.

As far as her offer of mutual law enforcement aid, he said “we would be far from that path.” 

“I don’t believe it’s the state’s role to provide law enforcement when we have contracts with the federal government,” he said.

Estes said Noem is right about the federal government not upholding its obligation to provide law enforcement, but he said Noem, as a former member of Congress, shares some of the blame for that.

He also said it’s unclear what Noem means by “banish the cartels.” Lower Brule has banished “five or six” non-tribal members during his time in tribal government for committing crimes.

“How are we supposed to banish the cartel when we don’t even know who they are, let alone is that going to stop them from coming onto our reservation?” he said.

Even so, he said there is an opening for Noem to improve relations, and he believes it has to start with an apology for her remarks about children.

“When she’s ready to apologize, we’re ready to sit down and talk.”