For the second time as governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem has been banished from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Last week, the Oglala Sioux Tribe said the Republican governor was no longer welcome on tribal lands, and its leaders referred to her rhetoric linking immigration and crime as opportunistic and dangerous.
“Our people are being used for her political gain,” said Oglala Sioux Tribe President Frank Star Comes Out.
After Noem suggested last week that the state send razor wire and security personnel to Texas to deter crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border, Star Comes Out accused her of trying to garner favor from former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Noem also said drug cartels are responsible for murders on the reservation and that they’re affiliated with a gang called the “Ghost Dancers” — which takes its name from a Native American religious ceremony. Historically, U.S. and state officials viewed the Ghost Dance as a threat of violence and sought to ban it, prompting a painful period of history.
Star Comes Out said the reservation has cartel and gang problems, but singling out a gang with that particular name and history felt like another insult to his people. Noem’s mention of the gang, he said, was the first time he had heard of it or its possible presence on the reservation.
Ian Fury, a spokesperson for Noem’s office, said in a Tuesday email, “All the Governor did was say the name of a gang that in fact exists and is in fact committing the crimes she referenced. She didn’t choose the name of the gang — they named themselves.”
Federal and tribal authorities have criminal jurisdiction on the reservations in South Dakota, and Star Comes Out wants more funding from the U.S. for law enforcement. Noem has previously pushed to expand the state’s jurisdiction. In 2018, as a U.S. House Representative, she proposed legislation that would allow federal authorities to arrest people on tribal lands for state crimes. It was widely opposed by tribal leaders, who saw it as a threat to tribal sovereignty.
Here are key questions and answers about the governor’s contentious relationship with the tribe.
What is the gang that Noem referenced?
Tony Mangan, a spokesperson for the South Dakota Attorney General’s office, said the Ghost Dancers are affiliated with a motorcycle gang called the Bandidos. The office does not know if the group is connected to drug cartels, nor does it know if the Ghost Dancers are present on the reservation, Mangan said.
Noem has cited cartels as responsible for homicides on the reservation, though her office didn’t share recent examples. Fury, the governor’s spokesperson, pointed to a 2016 murder on the reservation that was related to a drug cartel, but he declined to provide any information on other gang or cartel-related murders or any connection to the Ghost Dancers.
“Murders are being committed by cartel members on the Pine Ridge reservation and in Rapid City, and a gang called the ‘Ghost Dancers’ are affiliated with these cartels,” Noem said last week in a speech to state lawmakers. “They have been successful in recruiting tribal members to join their criminal activity.”
Star Comes Out, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said he had not heard of a gang called the Ghost Dancers until Noem mentioned it in her speech, and that he was unaware of any presence by this gang on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
What is the ghost dance?
The Ghost Dance was a religious movement that spread across Native American communities in the U.S. in the late 1800s, after a Paiute elder had a vision that their homelands would be restored and they would be reconnected with their ancestors if they practiced it. He also foresaw the removal of white settlers, whose violence and spread of disease had devastated tribes.
For many, the practice represented resiliency in the face of the tremendous loss brought on by colonization.
The dance involves holding hands and moving in a circle while singing throughout the night. In the early 1890s, U.S. political and military leaders tried to outlaw the Ghost Dance, fearing the movement was a precursor to an uprising in communities it subjugated. Around the country, tribal nations adopted the practice, and in South Dakota it became part of one of America’s most infamous massacres.
In 1890, hoping to stop the spread of the Ghost Dance, federal agents went to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who they believed was behind its influence there. After a dispute, agents shot and killed Sitting Bull and several other tribal members. Following this, a group of about 300 Lakota men, women and children left Standing Rock hoping to reach safety at the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The group was intercepted by U.S. troops, who killed hundreds of Lakota people in what would become known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Why was Noem banished before?
Multiple times since taking office in 2019, Noem has been at odds with tribal governments.
In response to her support for anti-protest legislation following the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council unanimously voted to ban the governor from the reservation in 2019.
Months later, the council lifted the ban after Noem and the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota reached a settlement, ensuring the state would not enforce parts of the “riot boosting” laws that Noem had crafted.
She also clashed with several tribes during the COVID-19 pandemic when they set up coronavirus checkpoints at reservation borders to keep out unnecessary visitors. When Noem was unsuccessful in getting the checkpoints dismantled, she turned to the Trump administration for help.
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, said 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.
Noem is considered a top contender for Trump’s vice president pick in his re-election campaign.
Star Comes Out said Noem is the first person he has banished since becoming the tribe’s president in 2022. The ban restricts Noem from visiting the reservation.
Is crime a problem on the reservation?
Yes. Star Comes Out declared a state of emergency on the reservation in November because of rampant crime that he said hasn’t been curbed due to the U.S. government’s inadequate funding for law enforcement. The state of emergency is still in effect, he said this week.
Last year, a federal judge ruled the U.S. government has a treaty obligation to support law enforcement on the reservation, but didn’t determine a specific amount of funding.
Star Comes Out said conditions on the reservation have worsened since the ruling, prompting him to sign an emergency proclamation, which said the U.S. government has failed “to fulfill the United States’ treaty, statutory and trust responsibilities to provide adequate law enforcement on the Reservation.”
Gun violence, drug offenses and sexual violence have become increasingly common on the Pine Ridge reservation, which is more than 2.1 million acres (849,839 hectares) or at least 4% of the state. Roughly 33 officers and eight criminal investigators are responsible for more than 100,000 emergency calls each year across the reservation, which is about the size of Connecticut, tribal officials have said.
Oglala Sioux officials have contended the tribe is entitled to federal funding for 120 fully equipped officers for the reservation, something the federal government has disputed.
The tribal nation filed a second lawsuit against the U.S. government last month to put pressure them to act.
By GRAHAM BREWER and TRISHA AHMED Associated Press
This story has been corrected to say that in 2018, Noem was a U.S. House Representative for South Dakota, not a Rep. in the South Dakota Legislature.