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Tribal members divided about banning Noem, united in need for better public safety

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Tribal members divided about banning Noem, united in need for better public safety

Jun 13, 2024 | 12:02 pm ET
By John Hult
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Tribal members divided about banning Noem, united in need for better public safety
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Intersection of Split Tail Hawk Street and Yellow Hawk Avenue in Lower Brule, SD. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Drug cartels weren’t top of mind for Crow Creek Tribal Chairman Peter Lengkeek on May 17.

That day, as Gov. Kristi Noem held a press conference in Pierre about drug cartels in Indian Country, Lengkeek was thinking of Rikki Rae Voice. 

Voice was a 36-year-old tribal member and Air Force veteran who died May 1 in her Box Elder home, three hours from the Crow Creek headquarters in Fort Thompson.

Lengkeek shut down tribal government on the afternoon of May 17 to prepare for the funeral, which came a day after Voice’s wake and two before her burial at the Black Hills National Cemetery in Sturgis.

Voice’s death is under investigation by Pennington County. So far, authorities have said only that there’s no indication of foul play. 

Lengkeek isn’t sure he believes that, and he doesn’t trust the county’s conclusions. Too many tribal members have died or gone missing without justice, he said, both on and off the reservation. 

“We fight and fight on our reservations for investigators to look into some of these deaths that they rule ‘Oh, it’s just a drunk Indian,’ or ‘It was a suicide,’” Lengkeek said.

Drug cartels don’t have a physical presence in Crow Creek, he said. But there’s no shortage of concern for missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

That’s what he thinks about when he thinks about underfunded law enforcement in his community.

“If I were a serial killer, I would hang out on a reservation,” Lengkeek said. “I would have a heyday because of the lack of resources, because of the lack of genuine involvement and compassion for our people from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is a government law enforcement agency. That’s all we have to rely on.”

Crow Creek security task force

Noem’s event was live streamed from the state Capitol, about two hours from Fort Thompson. There were comments from Noem, her tribal relations secretary and tribal law enforcement liaison, and state lawmakers, and photos of alleged cartel affiliates. The governor showed a video clip from Pine Ridge, filmed by Chris Hansen, the former host of the reality show “To Catch A Predator.” The segment is part of a project called “Merchants of Death” for TruBlu, Hansen’s video streaming service.

Playground in Fort Thompson, SD on the Crow Creek reservation. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Playground in Fort Thompson, SD on the Crow Creek reservation. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The funeral in Fort Thompson on the day of that press conference highlights the disconnect between the governor’s rhetoric on crime and drug cartels, and what tribal leaders say they need in their own communities. Among community members on the Crow Creek Reservation and its neighboring Lower Brule Reservation, opinions are divided about the tribe’s ban of Noem and her suggestions for bolstering law enforcement.

Noem and tribal leaders agree that the federal government has failed to uphold its treaty obligations to provide for public safety on tribal lands. 

Noem is pushing for the state’s nine tribes – the governments of which have all voted this year to banish her from their lands – to sign agreements to let state officers enforce tribal law.

But Lengkeek doesn’t want that. The state Highway Patrol works in Crow Creek for 72 hours a year during the tribe’s powwow, he said, but he doesn’t trust that outside officers are the answer to the day-to-day issues facing his reservation.

Crow Creek lacks its own police force and instead depends on the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to police the reservation. Lengkeek declared a public safety emergency and authorized the creation of a security task force last summer after a young man named Garrett Hawk was killed in a shooting at a known drug house. No one has been arrested for the slaying.

Cody Dion, leader of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Security Task Force. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Cody Dion, leader of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Security Task Force. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

“That was the tribe taking matters into its own hands,” Lengkeek said. 

The tribe also held a gun buy-back last year, handing out $500 payments for sawed-off shotguns and assault-style rifles. The tribe collected around 50.

“I’m a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment,” Lengkeek said. “I will die for that. But illegally possessing firearms, and the gunplay that happens with the brandishing of weapons, I can’t defend that.”

Since the tribe doesn’t have its own police force, the work of the task force is funded by proceeds from the tribe’s cannabis operation – medical for everyone and recreational for members of any Native American tribe – and its 20,000 acres of farmland, where commodities like corn and soybeans are grown. 

There may be a point in the future at which the security force morphs into a full-scale tribal police department, similar to departments operated by the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux tribes, but the group hasn’t moved in that direction or sought federal support at this point. 

As for Mexican drug cartels, task force member Cody Dion said the only time he hears Spanish is from visitors who show up to go fishing at the Missouri River that borders the reservation, and that it would be all but impossible to hide out in Fort Thompson. Outsiders can’t escape attention for long enough to operate on the reservation in the ways Noem is alleging, he said.

“I think if she was worried about the cartels, she should focus that effort on where they live at,” Dion said. “If they’re in South Dakota, they ain’t here on the reservation. They’re probably in the major cities.”

Lower Brule: Cooperation can’t start with law enforcement

The Lower Brule Reservation sits just across the Missouri River from the Crow Creek Reservation. Chairman Clyde Estes said there are plenty of issues where the state and tribes ought to work together before discussions of inking a law enforcement agreement can take place. 

He wants to see economic development, entrepreneurship and returns on tribal investment.  

“I’ve been requesting economic data studies so we can go to the drawing board and say, ‘Well, this is where we are, and how are we missing out on capitalizing on building our economy?’” Estes said. “Right now, the tribe is the biggest employer.”

Estes said he’d like to see proof that tribal leaders are “personally benefiting” from drug cartels, as Noem said at a March town hall. At Noem’s May 17 press conference, her Tribal Relations Secretary David Flute read a comment received by the governor’s office. The anonymous comment said tribal council members are “some of the biggest drug dealers on the reservation.”

Clyde Estes, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Clyde Estes, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

There have been corruption cases filed against tribal leaders for misuse of tribal funds in recent years, but no tribal council members or tribal presidents have been charged with drug distribution in the state.

In 2016 and 2017, leaders of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe banished tribal members convicted of selling methamphetamine.

“I understand that there’s always going to be people who make accusations,” Estes said. “And my thing is, if they have that evidence, go to law enforcement with it.”

Residents split on ban, united in opposition to state policing

There are plenty of opinions in Lower Brule and Fort Thompson – about Gov. Noem, as well as about tribal council members. 

Alvin Grassrope, of Lower Brule, told South Dakota Searchlight that he agrees with Noem’s calls for comprehensive audits of federal funding for tribes, which Noem says ought to be directed toward public safety. Grassrope’s grandson, Daniel Goodface, doesn’t like the governor’s rhetoric but doesn’t agree with banning her. 

The drug problems are real and serious, he said, and Noem should be able to come around to talk about it.

Goodface recently posted a YouTube video titled “the Poorest Place in the Nation: Pine Ridge Reservation” to his Facebook page. The 41-minute video came from content creator Tommy G, who travels the country visiting rough neighborhoods. In it, he tours Pine Ridge, learning about methamphetamine addiction, bootleg alcohol and a host of other social ills through conversations with residents. 

“I was like, ‘It’s like that on every rez,’” Goodface said. “You know, people might say it’s not or hide and bullsh*t, but it’s drugs and alcohol. It’s meth. It’s an epidemic.”

The governor’s office shared the same video with media outlets recently. 

Even so, Goodface doesn’t necessarily want to see the state Highway Patrol enforcing tribal law. He’d rather see them catch drug couriers on the state highways leading onto the reservation.

“We’re supposed to be sovereign, right?” Goodface said. “In some ways, we do need the state to help, but it would be nice to catch them coming onto the rez, because they have to cross state lines either way to get here. This is not a reservation problem. It’s a state problem.”

Floyd Hawk Wind, of Lower Brule, doesn’t agree with the ban, either. He doesn’t like what the governor has said and doesn’t see cartel members in Lower Brule, but he’d like Noem to visit and learn.

“Instead of banning the governor, they should invite her here,” he said. 

Jennifer Wounded Knee, of Fort Thompson, lives next door to the house where Garrett Hawk was killed in 2023. Hawk’s slaying sparked the creation of the security task force. Years ago, Wounded Knee was a law enforcement officer with the military police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Road sign near Fort Thompson, SD. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Road sign near Fort Thompson, SD. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Drug activity was common in her neighborhood for five years before something was done, Wounded Knee said, and she begged the tribe to deal with the issue. She applauded the creation of the security task force, but said it felt like too little, too late after so many years of trouble.

“They broke my window out, they slashed my daughter’s tires,” Wounded Knee said. “They were throwing needles in my yard, throwing trash in my yard.”

Wounded Knee doubts an outsider with cartel ties could hide out in the small town without being noticed, but she agrees with Noem on the need for more attention from law enforcement. 

When it comes to the idea that drugs and violence have gotten bad enough that tribes can handle themselves, she said, “the governor may be right.”

“Something needs to be done, or somebody needs to not be in leadership that’s allowing meth to be sold around here,” Wounded Knee said. 

She would like Lengkeek to work with the governor.

“He’s good, but what he’s doing is he’s trying to stay out of it, right or wrong,”  Wounded Knee said. “And that’s not right, either.” 

Terry Middletent, who also lives in Fort Thompson, agrees with the Noem ban. 

Middletent has little patience for talk of cartels, drugs and violence on reservations. 

“You have that everywhere,” Middletent said. “It’s not just here.”

Middletent sees the governor’s approach to the issues as divisive, not helpful. 

“For her to make those types of comments,” he said, “she’s just destroyed that relationship between the two nationalities.”