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In South Dakota, tribal flags in the state capitol are at the center of controversy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For years, South Dakota's governor has been trying to convince the state's nine tribal governments to display their flags in the state Capitol building. Now that effort has hit a snag, and as South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Lee Strubinger reports, one of the two tribes with a flag displayed now wants it taken down.

LEE STRUBINGER, BYLINE: When Democratic State Senator Shawn Bordeaux steps out of his third-floor office in the South Dakota Capitol, he sees something he's strived for for a long time - the flag of his tribal government.

SHAWN BORDEAUX: It's important to us, and it's important to the future generations our children represent as well.

STRUBINGER: Bordeaux is a Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. He says the flags serve as a welcoming gesture to visitors from that reservation. There are nine federally recognized tribes located in South Dakota, and relations between them and the state government have long been strained. In 2019, Republican Governor Kristi Noem aimed to improve the rough relations she inherited in office. For one step, she wanted to permanently display tribal flags in the Capitol, but several tribes refused that offer just a few days later, when Noem introduced a package of bills aimed to protect construction of the Keystone XL pipeline through the state. Tribes oppose the construction of the oil pipeline. But a month and a half ago, she announced that two tribes would display their flags in the Capitol rotunda. Bordeaux again.

BORDEAUX: Well, I thought it was a good first step. And I expected that maybe other tribes would follow suit when they saw that the state and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were working together.

STRUBINGER: But the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council demanded the flags be taken down after comments Noem made in a special address to the legislature on January 31 about the southern U.S. border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTI NOEM: 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. They have been successful in recruiting tribal members to join their criminal activity.

STRUBINGER: The border has been a reoccurring focus for Noem. She's seen by many as courting the vice president's spot on Donald Trump's ticket in November. Her address to the legislature came on the same day Trump promoted an upcoming book by Noem. But Noem's broad statement about crime on the reservations drew sharp criticism from some Native lawmakers in the state House. Democratic Representative Peri Pourier represents the legislative district that covers the Pine Ridge Reservation. She says she understands the border is an important topic, but she takes issue with the governor's characterization.

PERI POURIER: What I don't and the Lakota people do not understand and do not appreciate is her ability to use the most disadvantaged communities in South Dakota to further her national-level ambitions.

STRUBINGER: Noem has stood by her comments and asked for federal help to better fund law enforcement on tribal lands. For now, the flags remain in the rotunda, as the governor's office says, as an honor to the tribe. That's despite the fact the Tribal Council, when pressed by the tribe's president to reconsider, has recently reasserted its demand the flag be removed. For NPR News, I'm Lee Strubinger in Pierre.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMIENE SONG, "MARKING MY TIME") 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.