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Gov. Kristi Noem says Mexican cartels are active on South Dakota Indian reservations


Kristi Noem has faced tough headlines lately. Noem is the governor of South Dakota who Donald Trump has talked about as a potential running mate. Her story about once killing a family dog in her just-released memoir has not gone over well. And she backtracked on a claim in that same book saying she met with the leader of North Korea. Well, yesterday Noem traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border, and today she held a press conference saying Mexican drug cartels are taking advantage of Indian reservations in her state. Lee Strubinger, who covers politics for South Dakota Public Broadcasting, was at that press conference. Hey, Lee.


KELLY: So Governor Noem has been talking about this for a while - right? - a link, she says, between Mexican drug cartels and Indian reservations there in South Dakota. I gather eight of the nine tribes in the state have actually banned the governor from their reservations because of this. What did she say about it today? Was there anything new?

STRUBINGER: Well, she offered a lot of what she says is evidence that drug cartels are active on South Dakota's reservations. Some of this evidence she's pointed to in the past. She said that some tribal leaders are personally benefiting from cartels, but she hasn't named any specifically. And she said she's trying to help, but tribal leaders won't work with her to fight drugs in the state.


KRISTI NOEM: And it is impacting every single community in this state, and I'm hopeful that we can get new partnerships with tribal leaders that will want to work together to enforce tribal law and to bring law and order to areas in a way that we haven't done before.

KELLY: OK - so the governor there talking about law and order saying laws are not being enforced on reservations in South Dakota. Can you fact-check that for us, Lee? Is that true?

STRUBINGER: So it's no secret that reservations across America generally have less law enforcement. And in several of the reservations located in South Dakota, they have to cover a very large area. Native people often point out that the federal government is responsible for a lot of policing and prosecuting in what's called Indian country and that they don't think they get the funding or attention they deserve. There's actually a lawsuit underway between the Oglala Sioux tribe and the federal government over the funding issue. Troy Heinert, who's a former Democratic state lawmaker and enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, says the lack of public safety resources has been evident for years and that tribes need allies when pushing for more funding.

TROY HEINERT: She's burned so many bridges on so many other issues and hasn't shown any type of respect to tribes. And so the message of more funding for public safety is coming from all sides. You know, sometimes it's in how you say it.

KELLY: Big picture, Lee, the governor's visit to the border, this press conference today - what will be the impact on law enforcement on reservations in South Dakota?

STRUBINGER: Yeah. A lot of may have to do with the lawsuit currently underway and also with Congress and the federal government. Some of the things that she has called for, like faster processing of asylum applications so people aren't allowed to stay in the U.S. for months while awaiting a hearing - you know, that was in the bipartisan border bill that died in Congress in February. But Noem has a long way to go to re establish trust with tribal leaders, and many tribal leaders disagree with her over whether the cartels are even active on their lands.

KELLY: That is South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Lee Strubinger. Thanks so much.

STRUBINGER: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.