Native tribes on banning Kristi Noem from reservations: ‘She’d be charged with trespassing’

<span>Kristi Noem speaks in Rapid City, South Dakota, on 8 September 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Kristi Noem speaks in Rapid City, South Dakota, on 8 September 2023.Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

While sifting through his work emails one February afternoon, Clyde Estes saw a message that dismayed him.

“I started reading it and was just shocked,” recalled Estes, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. “It’s something you don’t expect to see.”

It relayed what Kristi Noem said at the state legislature just a few days prior. In her address at the state capitol, the second-term South Dakota governor blasted US immigration policy, saying that “invasion is coming over the southern border”. In that same speech, Noem pronounced: “Make no mistake, the cartels have a presence on several of South Dakota’s tribal reservations.”

We were holding out hope [for an apology] and got no reply

Clyde Estes

Noem alleged that tribal leaders in South Dakota were profiting off drug cartel activity. These remarks, and her controversial comments about Native children, have been met with staunch condemnation from Indigenous leaders, and have dredged up a bitter history between the tribes and the state.

As a result, all nine of South Dakota’s federally recognized tribes, which cover more than 12% of the state, have now banned Noem from their reservations.

After initially deciding against banning Noem in April, the tribal leaders of Lower Brule Sioux voted in May to go ahead. “There were a couple of fellow tribal council members who wanted an apology first, so we were holding out hope and got no reply from her at all,” said Estes.

If the governor attempts to enter the reservation, Estes said that tribal law enforcement would notify county sheriffs and ask her to voluntarily leave the reservation.

“She would be charged with trespassing,” said Estes, calling the situation “very, very unfortunate”.

“We’re going to stand up to defend our people.”


A vocal ally of Donald Trump, Noem was once considered a possible pick for Trump’s vice-presidential running mate. But her path to that role now seems more complicated following her revelation in her recent memoir that she killed her dog. Some see Noem’s focus on reservations as a political tactic.

Related: ‘She’s in the pantheon now’: Kristi Noem and the politicians who hit self-destruct

“She’s clearly trying to raise her profile as somebody who’s tough on the border, tough on crime,” said Chase Iron Eyes, a Lakota activist and attorney who is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. “She’s trying to use tribal nations as ploys for her political ambition.”

The Oglala Sioux were the first tribe to ban Noem in 2019, the same year she began serving as South Dakota governor. Many tribes in the state, including the Oglala Sioux, had protested against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project that would transport oil from Canada to the United States while crossing major waterways that Indigenous tribes in South and North Dakota rely on. The protests, largely led by Native Americans, resulted in 761 arrests in a six-month period.

Noem subsequently signed anti-riot legislation aimed to quash public protest, although it was later blocked. The Oglala Sioux Tribe said it felt targeted by the new law and it was “particularly offended” that Noem consulted with the pipeline company rather than the tribes.

In February this year, the Oglala Sioux reissued a ban following her recent comments linking drug cartels to tribes in South Dakota. In March, Noem accused tribal leaders of “personally benefiting” from cartels.

“If she claims to have evidence of tribal leadership involved in cartel activity, then make that evidence known,” said Iron Eyes.

“None of the council or myself are aware of any relationship with any cartel,” said Estes.

Frank Star Comes Out, president of the Oglala Sioux, has stated in the past that he believes cartels are active on tribal land. But tribes object to Noem’s suggestion that they are tied to the cartels – and say instead that the government is failing in its historic obligation to help tribes battle crime.

The Standing Rock Sioux, for instance, say tribes “ceded vast lands and resources” to the US in the 19th century in exchange for help providing law enforcement, among other things. Today, however, “on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, seven police officers patrol an area the size of two small states and serve a community of more than 12,000 tribal members and residents, needing at least 20 more officers to be fully staffed,” a tribal spokesperson said in a statement.

Noem did not respond to questions about these issues from the Guardian, but her spokesperson shared a recording of a May press conference in which she said, in part: “Instead of working with me, many of them [tribes] have chosen to banish me, and I will ask them right back, why have they not banished the cartels? Why have they focused their attention on me, who has only offered them help, and not gone after those who are perpetuating violence against their own people?”

She says the help she has offered includes a law enforcement course designed to train tribal officers and a law enforcement summit next week. The governor has also asked for audits of all federal funds given to South Dakota’s tribes to “verify the need for additional law enforcement resources”.

‘Attacking Native children is wrong’

Noem has criticized tribes on other fronts. “Not only is she impugning the reputations of tribal council members and elected leadership, she says that Native children are hopeless,” said Estes.

In remarks during a March town hall in Mitchell, South Dakota, Noem alleged that Native children “don’t have any hope”, in the context of commenting on limited access to education and jobs on reservations. She added: “They don’t have parents who show up and help them.”

For some, Noem’s comments about Native American children touch on a fraught history.

Instead of apologizing, she seems to be convincing herself that … attacking Native children is not wrong

Chase Iron Eyes

Thirty federal boarding schools operated in South Dakota between 1819 and 1969 that separated Native children from their parents, forced cultural assimilation and punished kids for speaking Indigenous languages.

“My mom went to one of these boarding schools. A lot of abuse took place there, a lot of forced removal of children,” said Iron Eyes. “In South Dakota, boarding school was a euphemism for a place where they erase who you are as a Native person.”

The South Dakota governor has since doubled down on her comments about cartels on tribal lands on social media.

“Instead of apologizing, she seems to be convincing herself that what she’s doing is not wrong,” said Chase Iron Eyes. “That attacking Native children is not wrong, saying they’re hopeless is not wrong.”

There have been no publicly reported accounts of Noem attempting to enter reservations, which have their own law enforcement, in the wake of the bans. When asked what state police would do in such a situation, a South Dakota highway patrol spokesperson said: “We decline to answer a hypothetical question.”