Gov. Kristi Noem delivers a speech about the U.S.-Mexico border on Jan. 31, 2024, at the state Capitol in Pierre. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
PIERRE — Gov. Kristi Noem used a speech Wednesday before a joint session of the South Dakota Legislature to call the U.S.-Mexico border a “war zone” controlled by drug cartels that also use South Dakota’s reservation communities as a home base for drug distribution.
The speech referred to the border situation as “an invasion,” but presented no policy recommendations to lawmakers.
“So why am I standing here in front of you today?” Noem said. “Because as we move forward to take action, I want us to be united, I want you to be informed.”
South Dakota could immediately send razor wire to the state of Texas, she suggested, and her administration is “exploring various legal options on how we can support Texas and force the federal government to do their job.”
Noem made multiple references to three South Dakota National Guard deployments to the southern border – twice in 2021 and once last year – noting that South Dakota was the “first state in the nation” to offer such support to Texas.
She did not address the fact that Texas has not reimbursed the state, however, and did not call for another deployment. The state’s troops “have been hampered by federal restrictions when they’ve been deployed to the border,” she said.
Noem made multiple references to the ravages of fentanyl and other drugs in South Dakota’s reservation communities, drugs she said got there thanks to Mexican drug cartels. At one point she offered to “very publicly” support the Oglala Sioux Tribe in a lawsuit filed against the federal government for its failure to adequately address public safety on the reservation.
“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. “They have been successful in recruiting tribal members to join their criminal activity.”
She said the impact to the state’s reservations proves that “every state is now a border state.”
As Noem delivered her speech, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, sent a post on X, formerly Twitter, that used nearly that exact phrase. Johnson linked to a Fox News story on a guilty verdict for two Central American men who kidnapped an FBI agent while they were trafficking drugs on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2022.
Repeated references to the tribes didn’t sit well with Rep. Peri Pourier, D-Rapid City, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Using the reservations as a talking point was “not only disingenuous, but it’s highly disrespectful,” she said.
“We have a myriad of issues,” Pourier said. “She only sees us when it furthers her argument and ambitions.”
Pourier was particularly troubled by the reference to a “Ghost Dancers gang.” She said she was not aware of such a gang.
Oglala Sioux Tribal Treasurer Cora White Horse told South Dakota Searchlight that the only “Ghost Dancers” group was a collective of motorcyclists who attend memorials.
“She claimed that the cartels are in the reservations and are being hidden here or whatever, but they’re not,” White Horse said.
Division of Criminal Investigation spokesman Tony Mangan confirmed that state law enforcement has interacted with the Ghost Dancers, however, as a support group for a gang called the Banditos. The DCI helped serve search warrants on a Banditos club house in Rapid City in 2022.
As far as support on the lawsuit, White Horse told South Dakota Searchlight that Noem could have supported the tribe when it first filed suit over a lack of resources in 2022.
“I don’t even believe a word she says, because she doesn’t have a good history with our tribe at all,” White Horse said.
Sen. Shawn Bordeaux, D-Mission, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, nodded to Noem’s “ambitions,” a reference to her name circulating as a potential running mate for Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Wednesday morning, Trump promoted an upcoming book by Noem on his Truth Social media platform.
The tribes “have never gotten the amount of money they’re supposed to get” for health care, infrastructure or public safety, he said.
“It’s about time somebody spoke about that,” Bordeaux said. “But it’s odd that it comes now, during the political climate where we’re wondering whether she’s going to be the next vice president … It seems odd that the timing of all this is right in the middle of all of our good work we’re doing here.”
The speech was “political” and offered nothing new, according to Rep. Eric Emery, D-Rosebud, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Even so, he did welcome the offer of support for the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s lawsuit, as relations between the Noem administration and the tribes “have been lacking.”
“I would applaud that,” Emery said. “But I would hope that will come with a grain of salt, and she would truly support what the tribes want and not just what the state wants.”
Four members of the Sioux Falls-based advocacy group South Dakota Voices for Peace came to Pierre on Wednesday wearing T-shirts that read “no human is illegal.”
The group’s director, Taneeza Islam, said she wanted to make sure they were present for the speech, as the group advocates for immigrants and refugees. One of her volunteers, Nitza Rubenstein, is a Latina who volunteers to work with Latin Americans in the Flandreau area for the group.
She told South Dakota Searchlight that the border “is not a war zone.” She crossed the border in Nogales, Arizona, 10 days ago with her white boyfriend during a vacation.
They had a great time in Mexico, she said, but not before she lobbied him to make the trip.
“He was afraid to cross to the Mexican side,” Rubenstein said. “All his friends told him not to cross the border because he’d get killed.”
Both chambers pass resolution
The voices of dissent were a clear minority, however, at least among elected officials.
Shortly after Noem’s speech, the House of Representatives voted on party lines to pass a resolution affirming South Dakota’s support for securing the southern border.
House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, R-Fort Pierre, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, argued on the resolution’s behalf, citing his experience of visiting the southern border last summer.
“We’re in a critical moment in our nation’s history and this is a memorable day that the South Dakota governor brought to us,” Mortenson said.
Mortenson later told South Dakota Searchlight that the issue of drug trafficking on the state’s reservations is a real and important issue, and that he hopes strained relations in other areas wouldn’t prevent cooperation on public safety.
“I think the state should stand ready to partner with any tribal government that wants to address the infiltration of the cartels on the reservations,” Mortenson said.
Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, R-Madison, was on the same summer trip to the border that Mortenson was. In his Senate floor speech, he spoke of 60-foot gaps in the border wall he’d seen at the time, and recalled a conversation with a retired Border Patrol chief who told him that Customs and Border Protection officers had 30,000 encounters with migrants in the previous week, seizing 109 pounds of fentanyl.
“That is enough to kill every South Dakotan 27 times,” Crabtree said. “That is one week of what they caught.”
Rep. Tim Reisch, R-Howard, is a former adjutant general of the South Dakota National Guard. He’d visited the border in the past, but said the situation is far worse today.
The federal Border Patrol made 249,785 arrests for illegal border crossings in December, which was an all-time high since monthly numbers have been released. Congress is working to negotiate border policy legislation, and the issue has taken center stage in the presidential campaign.
“The message was pretty sobering,” Reisch said. “Exactly what comes next remains to be seen. I think she got everybody’s attention for sure.”
—South Dakota Searchlight’s Makenzie Huber contributed to this report.
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