ENVIRONMENT

Oglala Sioux Tribe Bans South Dakota Governor From Reservation Over Pipeline Protest Laws

Gov. Kristi Noem (R) recently signed a package of laws to crack down on anti-pipeline demonstrations — a move the tribe says infringes on free speech.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe voted to ban South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation over her recent decision to sign into law a package of bills targeting opponents of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and other oil and gas infrastructure projects in the state. 

Julian Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, informed the first-term governor and former congresswoman in a letter Thursday that she is “not welcome to visit our homelands” until she rescinds support for two so-called “riot boosting” laws.

The legislative package, which Noem introduced and signed into law in March, grants state officials the authority to prosecute and sue not only individuals who protest pipelines on the ground but outside people and groups that support and fund anti-pipeline demonstrations.

Civil damages collected from those lawsuits would go into a fund to pay for law enforcement and other costs associated with “riot boosting,” a term the state has used to define the actions of rioting pipeline protesters and anyone who “does not personally participate in any riot but directs, advises, encourages, or solicits other persons participating in the riot to acts of force or violence.”

Noem has described the pipeline legislation as a “proactive approach that will spread the risks associated with pipeline construction.” 

“My pipeline bills make clear that we will not let rioters control our economic development,” she said in a statement after signing the legislation in late March. “These bills support constitutional rights while also protecting our people, our counties, our environment, and our state.”

In his letter Thursday, Bear Runner accused Noem of infringing on Native Americans’ free speech rights and the oil industry of trying to trespass on the tribe’s sacred lands and waters.

“According to 97% of scientists, climate change is a very real existential threat to humanity ― likely the greatest we’ve ever faced,” Bear Runner wrote in his letter. “In light of this, it is clear that the First Amendment ― which trumps state law ― was intended to protect speech of exactly the type your laws attempt to abrogate.”

President Donald Trump speaks during a fundraiser for then-Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kristi Noem in Sioux Falls, South
President Donald Trump speaks during a fundraiser for then-Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kristi Noem in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Sept. 7, 2018.

The letter comes a day after the tribe’s council voted unanimously in support of keeping Noem from setting foot on the reservation, which is home to around 20,000 people and is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

“Before you presume to visit our homelands again, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council must rescind its action as of May 1, 2019,” Bear Runner wrote. “If you do not honor this directive ― for example, if you were to repeat your recent visit absent permission from our tribal government ― we will have no choice but to banish you,” he said, referring to the formal process of permanently barring someone from the reservation.

Kristin Wileman, a spokeswoman for the governor, told HuffPost that Noem has spent a considerable amount of time on the Pine Ridge reservation and that the announcement from tribal leadership “is inconsistent with the interactions she has had with members of the community.”

“It’s unfortunate that the governor was welcomed by Oglala Sioux’s leadership when resources were needed during the storms, but communication has been cut off when she has tried to directly interact with members of the Pine Ridge community,” Wileman said via email. “The governor will continue working to engage with tribal members, stay in contact with tribal leadership, and maintain her efforts to build relationships with the tribes.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s chapter in South Dakota filed a federal lawsuit against Noem and other state officials on March 28, alleging that the “riot boosting” laws chill free speech and will result in law enforcement targeting peaceful organizers. 

“No one should have to fear the government coming after them for exercising their First Amendment rights,” Courtney Bowie, legal director of the ACLU of South Dakota, said in a statement. “Whatever one’s views on the pipeline, the laws threaten the First Amendment rights of South Dakotans on every side of the issue.”

As part of his relentless push for “energy dominance,” President Donald Trump has repeatedly gone to bat for fossil fuel and pipeline companies. In late March, just days after Noem signed the pipeline protest laws, Trump issued a presidential permit authorizing energy company TransCanada Corp. to construct the Keystone XL pipeline. A federal judge halted the project last year and ordered the administration to conduct an environmental review.

Along with issuing the new permit for Keystone XL, Trump signed a pair of executive orders in April aimed at speeding up oil and natural gas pipeline construction.

The proposed 1,179-mile, $8.5 billion Keystone XL pipeline would transport some 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska, where it would link up with the existing Keystone Pipeline that connects to refineries in Texas. 

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