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The Carletonian

In defense of Kristi Noem

On Monday, I wore a shirt that I almost never wear. It’s a black shirt with a yellow outline of my state, South Dakota, and in big, bold letters, the words “Meth. We’re on it.” This campaign, brought by the South Dakota governor’s office, sought to draw attention to an issue that gets ignored in many day-to-day conversations: meth use and drug abuse are problems on the reservations. This shirt represents a real campaign that had more than just a provocative ad. The “Meth. We’re on It” campaign established a helpline and awareness effort around the state. The actual campaign spent an immense amount of government resources to address the issue of drug, particularly meth, abuse throughout South Dakota.

Also on Monday, it was announced that my governor, Kristi Noem, was officially banned from 1/5 of the entire state. The Tribal governments of South Dakota have opted, with the exception of two, to ban the governor from entering reservation land. There’s not one single reason for why the Tribes have opted to ban the governor. Some, like my Tribe, banned her because of her harmful and atrocious COVID-19 policy, but the most recent trend of Tribes banning Noem comes from her comments regarding cartels, drugs and the Tribal role of response. Noem alleges that substance abuse in Native communities is a serious issue, but Tribal governments are at best negligent in their response, which will affect the future generations of Native youth.

Though I think that her language got mildly out of hand in her initial comment, the fact of the matter is that Kristi is kind of right. Drug use is a problem on reservations, and it’s a problem that Kristi, as governor of South Dakota, has a right and obligation to respond to. I take two issues with the way that this is being responded to. First, I take issue with the way that the Tribes are responding to Kristi’s comments. But I also take issue with the [JUMP] way that liberals and leftists, especially at Carleton, have decided to respond.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret that I’ve been privy to since I could understand it: many Tribal governments are corrupt, and those that are corrupt hate it when people point out that they are. The Tribal governments in question have done little to nothing to implement actual policy to curb drug abuse in Native communities. The extent to which the Tribal governments response to the epidemic of substance abuse that’s hurting our communities is limited to ineffective, half-assed ad campaigns or “traditional responses” like bringing in elders to talk to Native youth about the harms of drugs and alcohol. I have no doubt that these efforts are well-intentioned, but we’re seeing no actual results. The problem with policy on Indian Country is that Tribal leaders seem to have this mentality that the good intentions of a policy can somehow compensate for a policy’s lack of efficacy. But when you dare point this out at Tribal open comment meetings or at a family dinner, you’re chastised for daring to criticize all that the elders, the Tribal leaders and others have done to the policy.

Tribal leaders condemning Noem for pointing out a sentiment that is widespread in Indian Country is counterproductive to preserving the integrity of Tribal sovereignty and Native self-determination. In banning Noem, Tribal leaders are telling non-Indians that we don’t want Tribal-State cooperation when it comes to addressing substance abuse, and it confirms to Indians that the Tribal governments are corrupt and don’t like being called out on their corruption.

But to escalate this issue, performative activism has made it so that calling out Tribal governments on a lack of progress on issues like substance abuse is almost impossible. Liberals and leftists, like those at Carleton, in general lack an understanding that criticizing Tribal governments is not criticizing Native folks as a whole. When it comes to policy, this issue is especially pronounced. The left has a hard time admitting that substance abuse is a problem on reservations. Alcohol and drugs have torn Native families, including my own, apart, but those to the left of center have a hard time addressing these issues. It’s not surprising that these issues are taboo. One misplaced word, one poorly phrased sentence or one extremely long pause, and you go from sounding like  Tom Udall to sounding like General Custer. Because of this, the left has avoided talking about substance abuse on reservations. But this goes far beyond just not talking about an issue. Native communities have not called outTribal leaders for bad policy, but raise hell whenever a non-Indian has the audacity to call out ineffective Tribal policy.

This tendency for many on the left to do this seems so backward to me. If the governor of South Dakota were to call out Lithuania or Germany on their policies, it wouldn’t be an issue, but when the government of the people involved happens to be Native, that position changes. There’s a strong tradition of protesting and criticizing  governments on the left that shouldn’t be stifled based on which government you’re talking about. Criticizing Tribal governments for ineffective policymaking and corruption should be normalized in the same way that criticizing the U.S. government for ineffective policy and corruption is normalized. As I see it, the tendency to not criticize Tribes for a lack of good policy stems either from a sense of paternalism or a sense of apathy. Either you believe that Tribes are incapable of good policy, so there’s no point in criticism, or you simply don’t care that a massive epidemic of substance abuse is rampaging Indian Country. I would say that neither are particularly appealing reasons, so why is Kristi Noem being criticized for trying to solve a problem  in Indian Country?

The truth is that Noem’s office has done a considerable amount to try to address this issue. The “Meth. We’re on It” campaign wasn’t only an advertisement, it was a real policy and program set up to provide resources to families and users of meth. Kristi’s office has tried to combat the Ghost Dancers, a motorcycle gang with ties to drug cartels and human traffickers. Tribal police departments, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and inter-Tribal authorities have been ineffective at curbing this problem. The infrastructure that the “Meth. We’re on It” campaign established in South Dakota has seen net positive results, especially on reservations. In complaining that the Tribal authorities have neglected their jobs to protect our communities, Kristi isn’t infringing upon the sovereignty of the Tribe to enact new, better policy. She’s simply pointing out that the Tribes ought to do more, and the state shouldn’t be seen as a binding constraint that would prevent good policy from having a positive effect.

I’m livid that Tribal authorities are putting their political interest above the interest of our communities, but I’m not surprised. This type of corruption has been going on for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that I’m any less disappointed in the performative leftists that have the audacity to criticize Noem for discussing the problems that are hurting our reservations.


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About the Contributor
Bax Meyer
Bax Meyer, Managing Editor
Hey, all! I'm Bax (he/him), and I'm a junior Econ major with a Middle East Studies minor. I love talking about Middle East politics and American Indian Treaty Rights. I'll always send you good book or movie recomendations. You can probably find me on campus wandering the arb, on 1st libe, or at step areobics. I like dad jokes, American Indian Treaty Rights, shawarma, and publishing my hot takes in the Carletonian anonymously.
Red flags: econ major, will judge you for using the Oxford comma, and hates geese
Green flags: Middle East Studies minor, still uses the Oxford comma, and quotes the Star Wars prequels on the daily
Bax was previously Managing Director and Viewpoint Editor.

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