The Covid Queen of South Dakota
Gov. Kristi Noem’s state has been ravaged by her Trumpian response to the pandemic — but that hasn’t paused her national ambitions
Gov. Kristi Noem’s state has been ravaged by her Trumpian response to the pandemic — but that hasn’t paused her national ambitions.
At first, the angel of death skipped over South Dakota. This pleased the Snow Queen. It was Fourth of July weekend, and Gov. Kristi Noem was hosting Donald Trump for fireworks at Mount Rushmore. Covid-19 had already killed 122,000 Americans. Still, Noem cleaved closer to Trump’s failed policies than any other governor. In public, she recited Trump’s talking points: Covid was a Democratic plot to take over the country, masks were optional, and we’re open for business. Superficially, the statements seemed less crazy when delivered in the calm voice of a rancher’s daughter instead of that of an outdated tangerine con man. She even had South Dakota host a clinical trial for hydroxychloroquine, the president’s preferred snake oil.
Noem made the bet that the novel coronavirus would miss her rural state, and so far she had been mostly right. As the holiday approached, South Dakota had lost only 97 people. Of course, those 97 died horrifically. Early in the crisis, ICU nurse Adam Drake monitored a Covid-positive young man at Rapid City’s Monument Health Hospital. The man was intubated and allowed no visitors, per Covid protocol. He was heavily sedated and remained unresponsive until the 27-year-old Drake held up an iPad with the man’s family on the other side of a video call. Then tears ran down the man’s face. He died a few days later.
But those were isolated cases; some of the early casualties were immigrant meatplant workers and Native Americans, not Noem’s base. South Dakota was doing so well that Noem was the only governor to turn down federal unemployment assistance. Meanwhile, she spent $5 million on “South Dakota is open for adventure” travel ads that, coincidentally, starred Noem and appeared during the Republican National Convention and Tucker Carlson’s show.
Noem likes to play up her ranch roots, often appearing in public clad in a trucker cap and jeans, but she wore a sleeveless red dress at Rushmore. That day, she privately presented the president with a bust of Mount Rushmore, with Trump’s face added to it. He loved it. Noem and the president became so chummy that she flew to Washington, D.C., that night on Air Force One with Trump and his entourage, including Corey Lewandowski, a new friend. Rumors spread she might replace Mike Pence on the 2020 ticket. (Noem later made another trip to D.C. to smooth over things with Pence.)
Sure, she approved the call up of the National Guard on the Lakota Indian protest of Trump’s visit that resulted in an ac
tivist being charged with four felonies for writing “Land Back” on a police shield. For Noem, that was fake news. The next week, she rode maskless into an indoor Sioux Falls rodeo show on a horse, an American flag in her hand. “I choose to rely on science and data and facts,” said Noem, despite disregarding the actual science and data.
Then she pushed in all her chips. In August, she urged Americans to ride into Sturgis for the annual motorcycle rally. “We hope people come,” Noem told Fox’s Laura Ingraham. She lambasted the left’s negativity. “We’re in a good spot.” So the Harleys came and their riders drank beer and shot pool in crowded bars, totaling 366,000. They stood shoulder to shoulder as Smash Mouth’s singer screamed, “Fuck that Covid shit!”
And then the wave hit.
Cases in south Dakota quadrupled in the weeks after Sturgis. (This doesn’t take into account the untold cases that the bikers spread upon returning to their home states.) Back in Rapid City, Drake, the ICU nurse, watched his hospital fill and add an ad hoc second ICU unit. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen,” says Drake. “We sat a woman up in a chair because she seemed to be doing better, but then she threw a clot and she died an hour later.”
Noem pressed on. She posted on her government Twitter account a video where she crouched in a field wearing camouflage and pointed a gun at a pheasant. She blew it out of the sky and made a joke. “I am Kristi Noem, governor of South Dakota,” she said. “This is how we do social distancing in our state. Less COVID more hunting. That’s the plan for the future.”
The actual future held a pandemic disaster. By October 5th, South Dakota’s Covid outbreak was raging and health officials labeled the state one of the most dangerous places in the U.S. That evening, a Covid-ravaged Trump was released from Walter Reed Hospital after millions of dollars in medical care. Trump saluted Marine One after it dropped him off at the White House. In Rapid City, one of Drake’s Covid patients gasped for air and watched this president on television. “I wish I could trade places with him,” said the man.
South Dakota’s death toll continued to rise. Noem stayed the course. By December 3rd, more than 1,000 South Dakotans had died due to complications from Covid, including 17 residents of the Estelline Nursing Home. Noem’s own grandmother died there on November 22nd. She tested negative.
And Noem? She was busy being Ted Cruz before Ted Cruz. The virus ravaged South Dakota, and Noem spent 12 days in October out of state, campaigning for Donald Trump. “It’s imperative we get President Trump back in the White House,” Noem told the Argus Leader in late October. In January, she campaigned in Georgia against two Democratic Senate candidates who she described in an op-ed as “communists.” Back home, South Dakota was moving up the charts. Noem’s state now ranks eighth in deaths per capita, with four times as many deaths than similarly populated but tightly compacted San Francisco. It really is quite an achievement.
South Dakota has 880,000 citizens scattered over the country’s 17th largest state, providing built-in social distancing. In theory, it should have a Covid death rate in the bottom 10, near fellow sparse states like Maine and Wyoming. Instead, there are now more than 1,900 dead — one in 470 South Dakotans — and one in eight have tested positive for Covid, the second-highest rate in the country. Noem appeared on Face the Nation in February, and host Margaret Brennan asked how she could square her pro-life stance with her state having the highest Covid death rate since July. “Those are questions you should be asking every other governor in this country,” said Noem. “I’m asking you today,” said Brennan.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” says Reynold Nesiba, a Democratic South Dakota state senator. “She had a choice: Follow Trump’s way or pull us all together and make it about looking out for one another. She chose Trump.”
Noem declared victory despite the bodies strewn across her state. There she was on Hannity on February 25th, criticizing Biden’s Covid bill, saying, “I’ve been saying for months . . . that the media and Democrats were using this virus to promote fear and a political agenda.” The U.S. passed the 500,000-dead mark that week.
Today, Noem presides over a magical place, a land with maskless rodeos, water parks, and karaoke. The cost? Wallet-wise, the place isn’t that expensive; just bring some cash for steaks and a few spins of the roulette wheel. But it will bankrupt your compassion fund. If you’re OK with that, then hightail it to South Dakota, where anecdotal evidence suggests there are political refugees arriving weekly from dreaded mask-up states like Minnesota.
The fact that Noem has emerged from a public-health disaster smelling so sweet has baffled some political observers. Actually, her moves make sense if you know that Noem is running for president. Sure, she’ll deny it, but combine the nonstop Fox appearances, the endless campaigning, and the presence of Trump whisperer Lewandowski and you have all the ingredients for a 2024 bid. (Unless Trump runs again. Then, she’d become a gender-balancing VP candidate.) Noem’s rigged-election/masks-suck/ own-the-libs persona meshes perfectly with the 2021 Republican Party built on the twin pillars of Stop the Steal and “1/6 was a false-flag operation.” Noem is Trumpism with a cowgirl face. The fact that the media have hammered her for botching South Dakota’s Covid response does not matter even a little bit.
“The MAGA crowd does not give a fuck about that,” says former Republican strategist Tim Miller. “As long as Noem is making the right people angry, they’re happy, they don’t care about failures. She’s got the MAGA look.” Miller is a never-Trumper but respects the con.
“Look, she had one of the worst responses to coronavirus in the entire world,” Miller tells me. “And she’s wearing that as a positive! She’s going to troll and dunk on the wimps that cared about the fact that people were dying. MAGA World loves that.”
Noem held a fundraiser at Mar-aLago in March. At the end of it, a special guest emerged, in a dark suit and a too-long blue tie. It was Donald Trump.
IspenD three weeks in South Dakota, logging 1,500 miles driving across the state. I first wanted to understand the conditions on the ground for medical professionals. So on a January day, I drive two hours from Sioux Falls to Yankton, a mill town nestled on the Nebraska border.
Dr. Michael Pietila sneaks me into his Yankton medical office through a back entrance — not all of his medical colleagues are on board with him chatting to a reporter about the state’s Covid disaster. It turns out that Pietila went to high school with Noem near Watertown, 150 miles to the north.
“She was considered a good person from a good family,” says Pietila.
Pietila is a pulmonologist, and talks about the resistance he met when he spoke before the Yankton School Board and public and argued for a local mask protocol. But he and others persisted, and Yankton now has one of the state’s lowest Covid hospitalization rates. It hasn’t been easy.
“How would you like to be a lung specialist here?” says Pietila, who trained at the Mayo Clinic, where he studied pandemics. Pietila is loath to condemn his former classmate by name, but he does indirectly.
“We have a real problem with experts here,” says Pietila. “My preference would be that our leaders would have said, ‘We respect your personal choice, but have trust in someone you elected. I want you to wear a mask. If you can do those things, they will benefit more of us than it will harm.’ ” He sighs. “Instead of saying personal freedoms, choice, and liberty are more important than anything else.”
Pietila tells me about the corrosive damage Covid does to the lungs. He suggests that if more state Republicans had seen the inside of an ICU unit, they might tone down the personal-liberty talk. “I’ve never seen imaging studies of lungs look like that,” says Pietila. “Maybe a pathologist has, but I haven’t. The scarring is just unbelievable.”
Pietila knows it didn’t have to be this bad in South Dakota.
“We had advantages,” he says. “We are sparsely populated, don’t use a lot of public transportation, and don’t have that many large gatherings.” He smiles a little. “Well, until we did. But anyone who thought Covid wasn’t going to find us doesn’t know anything about a novel virus.”
A few weeks before I arrived, Noem gave an interview where she praised her own leadership and said, “I trusted the people of this great state to take personal responsibility.” This was hilarious because South Dakotans had just exercised their personal responsibility at the ballot box and approved medicinal and recreational marijuana use in a statewide referendum. Alas, legalizing weed doesn’t fit into Noem’s 2024 plans. She is fighting the people’s will for THC in court. Freedom is, apparently, just another fungible word.
I drive cross-state to Rapid City and have coffee with Dan Warnke, an ICU nurse who works with Adam Drake.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” says one South Dakota state senator. “Kristi Noem had a choice: Follow Trump’s way or pull
us all together. She chose Trump.”
Warnke watched the governor’s self-congratulatory State of the State speech with dismay. He is a South Dakota native and the exact kind of person South Dakota needs to keep home if it wants to be a prosperous state. He and his wife just had a baby. He heard the governor’s words, thought of all the suffering he saw at the hospital, and was filled with something that exists between anger and despair.
“We used to be a pioneer state that helped their neighbors bring in their crops if they were sick,” Warnke tells me. We wear masks and sit at opposite ends of a long table. “We took care of one another. It wasn’t about ‘You can’t tell me what to do’ and ‘I’ll do what I want whether you get sick or not.’ I don’t know what happened.” He shakes his head. “Well, I guess our governor happened.”
It’s late January in Pierre, South Dakota’s state capital. State Sen. Nesiba keeps pushing buttons on his laptop, trying to submit a masking bill that would bring South Dakota in line with President Biden’s request for a universal masking advisory. “I’m not sure why it’s not sending,” says Nesiba, who is also an economics professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. He makes a joke. “Maybe the governor has put a bug in the system.”
Nesiba wears a mask inside the maybe150-square-foot office that houses him, Troy Heinert, and Red Dawn Foster, the only three Democrats in the state Senate. Social distancing is pretty much out of the question, but then again, Nesiba and Heinert have already had Covid. Nesiba was likely infected at a Senate budget committee hearing held last year, where most of the Republicans refused to wear masks. “I still have brain fog, but I’m getting better,” says Nesiba. (The tradition continues. He texted me from a recent winter meeting: “Four legislators are wearing masks correctly. Two have noses exposed. Nine are not wearing a mask.”)
Nesiba gives up on sending the bill — it eventually died on the Senate floor without a vote — so I head out to the Senate gallery to watch today’s proceedings. There’s one main difference between the state’s deliberative bodies. The Senate had at least 11 members come down with Covid in 2020, so now they wear masks. The House doesn’t require masks — despite a representative dying from Covid complications in 2020. The House will have eight cases in their ranks by the end of February.
Not that long ago, South Dakota elected its share of Democrats, including former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Like much of rural America, the state has moved away from Democratic populism to the white-grievance populism of Trump, where government officials are the modern equivalent of Reconstruction carpetbaggers. Noem’s creation myth plays into that.
Ron and Corinne Arnold raised young Kristi and her three siblings on a ranch outside Watertown. She was popular, being elected South Dakota’s Snow Queen in 1990. Being a Snow Queen “gave me my first opportunity to sit in an interview, to speak in public,” Noem told a local paper when she entered politics. The idyllic life ended when she was in her early twenties and her father was killed in a farming accident. By then, Kristi was already married to Byron Noem. She quit college and, along with her siblings, returned home to help her mother run the family business. She tended to the ranch and raised three children over the next 15 years. She ran for a seat in South Dakota’s part-time Legislature in 2006, but made her big move in 2010, when she challenged U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a conservative Democrat. The Washington Post deconstructed the contest as Sandlin’s “Mama Grizzly Bear” against the next Sarah Palin and a made-for-Fox star in the making.
Sandlin had voted against Obamacare, but Noem ran commercials tying Sandlin’s support for Nancy Pelosi as a sign of her radicalism. Sandlin suggested Noem wasn’t a serious person, and offered up Noem’s 20 speeding tickets as an adult as evidence. Noem countered that she knew suffering, and referred repeatedly to the onerous estate taxes her family had to pay off after her father’s death as an example of Washington’s wickedness. Noem won by two points.
Noem was added to the House committee dealing with estate-tax issues, and in 2015 took to the floor and spoke about how the federal government made her family’s situation ever more desperate.
“It wasn’t very long after he was killed that we got a bill in the mail from the IRS that said we owed them money because we had a tragedy happen to our family. . . . I chose to take out a loan, but it took us 10 years to pay off that loan to pay the federal government those death taxes. It is one of the main reasons I got involved in government and politics, because I didn’t understand how bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, D.C., could make a law that says when a tragedy hits a family, they somehow are owed something from that family business.”
The only problem was that her story is, charitably, a tall tale. The IRS doesn’t send a tax bill after a death; it waits for you to file a tax return first. Both USA Today and Huffington Post pointed out that while Noem’s family did pay roughly $169,000 in estate taxes over a decade, it was at the hardly onerous rate of four percent interest. In addition, the entire tax could have
been avoided if Arnold had simply updated his will, something he hadn’t done for more than a decade. That small act would have allowed for a taxfree transfer. The media also noted that during the time Noem’s family was paying off their low-interest debt, they received $3.7 million in farm subsidies. Arnold also had left his wife a $1 million insurance policy that easily could have paid off the tax, but a smart accountant probably figured carrying a loan at four percent was a good deal.
Noem alternated between saying the law was still a bad law and keeping her mouth closed when confronted by Capitol Hill reporters. Mostly she just kept walking. Remarkably, Noem has stuck to her story. Her 2018 gubernatorial campaign website still reads:
“While Kristi was taking college classes, her father was killed in a farming accident. . . . As the family was still suffering from their loss, they were hit with the death tax, which impacted almost every decision they made for a decade. It also became one of her motivations to get involved in politics.”
Noem’s estate-tax fib is symbolic of her phony less-government-more-freedom talking points. She rarely mentions the $1.25 billion in CARES Act money South Dakota received when bragging about her state’s Covid economy. This was particularly ironic since the Associated Press reported that businesses connected to her family members received $600,000 in federal relief money. (Noem’s aides stressed the governor had no personal stake in the ventures.) It reminds me of something Nesiba said back in Pierre.
“One of the things about South Dakota is it’s easy to be a rugged individualist when you get more money from the federal government than you give to the federal government.”
As per usual with any outlet that isn’t spelled F-O-X, I couldn’t get anyone from Noem’s press office on the phone, so I dropped in on one of the weekly news conferences she holds in Pierre when the Legislature is in the session. It lasts only 22 minutes, but it gives a pretty good sense of the game she is playing. About a half-dozen masked reporters wait in the governor’s big conference room. Noem enters with some aides, and it is quickly apparent this is the least-favorite part of her day. She forces a smile of a hello, but speaks in clipped sentences like a long-suffering high school teacher humoring docile students. It is a few days after Dr. Deborah Birx had said in an interview that Noem’s sanctioned Sturgis rally was “a mistake.” I ask her about it. She begins with her regular line thats “We have followed the science of the virus and what we know about it, the data, and the facts on the ground.” After that non-answer, she can’t resist getting in a shot. “I know Dr. Birx has expressed a lot of opinions,” says Noem, with a wry look. It is classic Noem, casting Birx as mealymouthed rather than a scientist adjusting her analysis as facts changed in a fast-moving pandemic.
“I didn’t necessarily want people shamed if they chose not to, but left that up to individuals to decide,” says Noem about mask-wearing. Per usual, Noem doesn’t address whether part of her job as the state’s chief executive is to nudge her citizens into doing the
right thing and protecting one another.
I follow up and ask Noem if she regrets not centering her Covid response more around the South Dakota tradition of taking care of their neighbors and less around the nebulous concept of freedom. She pauses for a second, looks at me directly with a steely glance, and her eyes say, “I’m not going to walk into that trap.” She repeats her science-and-data line before offering some red meat to the base. “I think there’s a breaking of our republic when leaders overstep the authority that they have, infringing on personal rights and responsibilities.”
Another reporter asks if, in the wake of the January 6th riots, she regrets calling the election “rigged.” Instead she offers contradictory non-answers. “I think that we deserve fair and transparent elections . . . there’s a lot of people who have doubts about that.” Later she adds, “We had an election, we had a result, President Biden is the president.”
It is a cynical if effective play. No good has come to Republicans who have admitted Trump actually lost the election. Someone then asks Noem why she won’t release how much it costs taxpayers for South Dakota state troopers to provide protection on her multiple campaign trips.
“I don’t talk about security,” says Noem, who has had a $400,000 fence built around the governor’s mansion.
A minute later she is gone.
Noem was electeD the governor of South Dakota in 2018 with just 51 percent, a low vote total for a Republican in red South Dakota. Some of it was the strength of her Democratic opponent, Billie Sutton, the scion of a famous South Dakota rodeo family. But it was also skepti
cism that Noem actually wanted to do the job and wasn’t just using the office as a stage for Republican culture wars. (She didn’t soothe any minds when on her first full day in office she held a prayer service that included a minister who called for all the demons in Pierre to be vanquished.)
Still, she won, and it wasn’t merely because of the R before her name. “She has a specific South Dakota charm that fits into how we romantically see our state,” a longtime Democratic figure told me. “She’s a true rancher and farmer. She hunts and rides a horse well, and has that smile. That is no small thing.”
Noem immediately went to work establishing her hard-right bona fides on both the spiritual and logistical front. She pushed for a state law requiring that all South Dakota schools have the words “In God We Trust” prominently displayed, winning praise from the religious right. (This year, she signed legislation preventing transgender girls from participating in women’s high school sports.) In order to better broadcast her message from isolated Pierre, Noem built herself a $130,000 studio in the basement of the Capitol.
That first year in office was marked by one comic catastrophe and an important connection. Noem’s administration contracted a Minnesota ad firm to come up with a new state anti-drug campaign, and they settled on South Dakotans repeating the slogan “Meth, we’re on it.” The television spots cut from ranchers to football players all saying “Meth, we’re on it.” The whole country laughed, but the Noem administration refused to pull the ads.
Her Trumpian concede-nothing approach to governing has become her hallmark, and South Dakota political observers trace its roots to a Canadian meeting. Longtime conservative activist-billionaire Foster Friess hosts an annual fishing trip off of British Columbia that brings together conservative leaders for a working vacation. In the summer of 2019, Noem attended, along with ex-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. They apparently became fast friends. Over the next year, Lewandowski and Noem were spotted conferring at inexplicably diverse places, including a Louisiana fundraiser and a vizsla-breeding business in Roscoe, South Dakota. According to the Associated Press, Lewandowski spoke at one of Noem’s monthly Cabinet lunches and urged department heads in the 46th most-populous state to make their own national television appearances for Noem. (Noem officials say Lewandowski has no formal role with the governor.)
The 47-year-old Lewandowski is an odd duck even in Trump World. He was fired as 2016 campaign manager, but not before he was accused of manhandling a reporter. (Lewandowski did not respond to requests for comment.) He still stayed in the president’s orbit and became best known for a contentious appearance before a congressional committee investigating Trump and Russia, where he said he had no obligation to tell the media the truth, and for making an incoherent Fox News appearance, where the host eventually urged him to drink some coffee.
The Lewandowski link provides the connective tissue that fuses Noem’s and Trump’s mask policies. Something often misunderstood about masking in South Dakota — and perhaps a reason for the initially low infection rate — is that many of South Dakota’s towns and cities invoked their own policies during the outbreak’s early days. But when the plague didn’t come immediately, South Dakotans rebelled against their more conscientious political leaders. Noem offered no support, and a
masking mandate crumbled in Sioux Falls when the Republican mayor voted against it. Across the state, in Rapid City, Common City Council President Laura Armstrong created a Facebook page promoting local businesses complying with CDC guidelines as well as mask-required businesses for those worried about contracting the virus. Conservative activists likened her to a Nazi and brought pictures of yellow Stars of David to council meetings. They threatened her on social media and trespassed on her isolated property (multiple times), and a colleague of hers had the lug nuts loosened on a family car. Noem said nothing.
Beyond Covid, Lewandowski’s influence can be seen in the adversarial relationship Noem has created with the South Dakota media. She has refused to do an interview with Angela Kennecke, the state’s most prominent newscaster, citing her bias. She also hired Ian Fury as her press secretary. The twentysomething Fury had no South Dakota experience, but he was a graduate of Hillsdale College, a former aide to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, worked for the Koch brothers-backed organization Americans for Prosperity, and served as communication director for Congressman Jim Jordan. With the Noem job, Fury may be the youngest GOP apparatchik to black out his hardright bingo card. Both Fury and policy director Maggie Seidel have taken a combative approach to media relations. Seidel has circulated to groups of reporters emails ripping another reporter’s work, and Fury often takes to Twitter to eviscerate stories that do not cast a halo around his employer. “They get you both ways,” a reporter told me. “They give you no access and won’t answer your questions when you’re reporting, and then rip you afterward.”
Noem’s administration has also turned her Trumpian fire hose at both competitors and randos. Eyebrows arched when Noem hired former Trump mouthpiece Daniel Bucheli as communications director for the South Dakota Department of Health. His communications skills were on display when a Washington state resident tweeted that his mom in South Dakota wasn’t getting a vaccine shot because of racism. Bucheli’s Health Department tweeted back, “What evidence do you have of the above? Your racist and partisan hack accusation has ZERO evidence b/c it’s simply not true.” No one could figure out what the point was.
Recently, Noem’s account needled neighboring Minnesota for having to raise taxes after the Covid lockdown: “@GovTimWalz shut down Minnesota’s economy. Now he’s facing $1.3 BIL
LION in budget shortfalls and is recommending huge tax increase to make ends meet. REMINDER TO MINNESOTANS: South Dakota Means Business.”
There was no mention that Minnesota has a death-per-capita rate half of South Dakota’s. In January, fellow 2024 GOP hopeful Nikki Haley tweeted about a Texas school that allowed poor students to buy essential items without cash. Noem replied in a tweet, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
“All of this stuff is straight out of the Lewandowski-Trump playbook,” a longtime South Dakota politico tells me, lamenting the loss of Great Plains civility. “We haven’t seen anything like that here before.”
The MAGA posturing could work to Noem’s advantage. “I would never put Corey in charge of complex strategy,” says Miller, who was hip-checked by Lewandowski at a 2016 presidential debate. “But he has his finger on the pulse of the Trump superfan. And that helps Noem.”
Noem and Lewandowski headlined their own event on October 9th, 2020. Trump was still in quarantine after his Covid sickness, but that didn’t stop a maskless Noem and Lewandowski from speaking to 250 people in a Naples, Florida, VFW Hall.
“At some point we have to let Americans live,” shouted Lewandowski. Noem added, “If someone is concerned about these events they can stay home.”
I’m still half asleep on a deserted state road, so I might not have noticed I was entering the Pine Ridge Reservation if an old woman with a clipboard didn’t wave down my car. She asks me my name, writes it down, and I am on my way in about a minute.
Almost immediately I start seeing signs at the end of driveways reading “Do not visit . . . . elders quarantining.” Just outside of Wounded Knee, I drive down a twisting dirt road filled with rambunctious dogs and arrive at Nick Tilsen’s place. I ask him about the signs. “We’re losing elders at an alarming rate, people who speak Lakota fluently,” says Tilsen, the CEO of NDN Collective, a Native American-run nonprofit. “We’re one of the poorest counties in the country and a hundred miles from a major hospital. We’re trying to protect them.” He pours himself a cup of coffee. “You know who was against that? Governor Kristi Noem.”
Tilsen has found himself awash in Noem angst since she took office in 2019. In the last week of the 2019 legislative session, and without hearings, Noem introduced an anti-“riot boosting” law that would make it a felony to have aided or abetted a protester in any way. The bill was clearly targeted at Native Americans and others protesting the Keystone pipeline that was being revived under Trump. Noem was hoping to avoid the headlines that lit up the nation in 2016 with the pipeline protests up north on the Standing Rock reservation. “Her whole thing is about shutting us down,” says Tilsen. “She’d be happy if we didn’t
“We’re the poorest county in the country, and we’re trying to protect our elders,” says a Native American leader. “You know who was against that? Governor Kristi Noem.”
vote, didn’t speak.” Tilsen and other tribes joined forces with the ACLU and challenged Noem’s law. It was quickly struck down in federal court as unconstitutional, with the judge deriding it as so broad “that Martin Luther King would have been arrested for writing ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail.’ ” The whole exercise cost the South Dakota taxpayers about $150,000 in court fees. (A less draconian version of the bill was passed in 2020.)
After the pandemic began, many South Dakota reservations started putting up roadblocks and checkpoints to keep visitors away from their vulnerable population. Noem initially threatened to call in the National Guard to end the checkpoints, but backed off after someone told her that the tribes had autonomy to do what they wanted to keep their people safe. “I thought for a while she was going to send her police and we were going to meet them with our police,” says Tilsen. He lives less than 10 minutes from Wounded Knee, a community that first saw American troops massacre 150 American Indians in 1890, and then, in 1973, laid siege to the town for 71 days in a standoff about indigenous rights.
Noem’s hands-off approach to Covid was seen as a death sentence by Native Americans who lived in small, densely populated houses and are a helicopter ride away from a ventilator. So, the tribes began taking care of their own. “If you test positive in South Dakota, they just give you a call and don’t contact anyone else,” a contact tracer tells me on the Standing Rock reservation. “We couldn’t live with that. Someone tests positive, we call everyone the patient has come into contact with.”
It’s not the only way the state and the tribes have operated differently. Back in Pierre, state Sen. Heinert tells me that when he tested positive, his tribe, the Rosebud Sioux, brought meals to his home to help him ride out his 14 days of quarantine. He points over at Nesiba, his colleague. “They don’t do anything like that for South Dakotans.” Indeed, one January night I tagged along as a Native American support group delivered meals to Covid sufferers living off-reservation in Rapid City. The group prides itself on there not being one Native American Covid-related fatality in the city.
Heinert gives some credit to the Indian Health Services for providing reservations with tests and equipment. “We lived through smallpox, so we take the pandemic seriously,” he says. Heinert snorts when I ask him about Noem’s masks-optional and “We’re open for business” approach.
“To me, it’s a lack of empathy,” says Heinert. “If you’re governor you have to have empathy for others. She doesn’t have it.”
Back on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Tilsen says the disrespect never ends. Noem skipped the annual State of the Tribes address, the indigenous community’s version of the State of the State. The pressing event? A maskless tour of a Sioux Falls factory. “I don’t know another governor who has missed one,” says Tilsen, who lives on reservation where unemployment hovers around 70 percent. “It’s just a slap in the face, especially during a pandemic.”
There is some good news. Tilsen has previously played a significant part in helping with a $60 million housing development a few miles up the road that will partially alleviate the reservation’s horrific lack of modern housing. Still, most of his current efforts are directed toward staying out of jail. It goes back to Trump and Noem. When the governor announced that Trump would be coming to South Dakota’s Black Hills and Mount Rushmore for the Fourth of July, Tilsen moved into action. “It’s right after George Floyd. We’re watching protests and statues coming down,” says Tilsen. “And we’re in the midst of a pandemic, where indigenous black and brown people are dying in disproportionate levels.” He [
shakes his head in disbelief. “And this president and governor, in the middle of all this shit, want to come to the heart of the Black Hills, to a place that has a deep history of injustice and racism, to spew bullshit. It was white supremacy.”
Tilsen’s parents met at a protest, and he remembers marching for justice as a little boy with Hot Wheels clenched in his hands. It’s in his blood, and he didn’t plan on protesting Trump in a half-assed way. Tilsen notified local police where and when they were going to protest. Tilsen thought they had reached an understanding, but on the morning of Trump’s speech he saw that Noem had approved calling in the National Guard at the urging of local police.
Tilsen had about 200 protesters; some were heckled by Trump supporters shouting “Go back to where you came from.” Still, it wasn’t something that Tilsen had not experienced before. He was surprised, however, when the police declared their gathering unlawful and the National Guard moved in.
“They were not even trained,” says Tilsen. “They weren’t using their shields for protection, but bashing them around like weapons. I’ve never been at a protest where they are actually swinging their shields.”
In the resulting melee, Tilsen says, he grabbed one of the shields to prevent it from smashing his head. The protesters retreated, and Tilsen wrote “Land Back” on the shield. He was then arrested and transported to the Pennington County Jail. Tilsen says he noticed two things at the jail: Everyone incarcerated was Native American, and there were no masks. Still, he thought he would be quickly released. Instead, he was held for three and a half days and charged with four felonies.
“I was sitting there and going, ‘Holy shit, they were ready for this,’ ” he says. “This was Kristi Noem saying, ‘I told you I’d have the guts to call out the National Guard on these Indians.’ She’d been wanting to, and this was the right opportunity.”
Tilsen’s trial date is set for April. He says he’ll opt for a jury trial before he takes a plea with jail time.
A footnote: Two months after Tilsen’s arrest, South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg veered out of his driving lane near Pierre and killed a pedestrian. He claimed for the first 12 hours after the accident that he thought he’d hit a deer. This claim seemed dubious when the dead man’s glasses were found inside Ravnsborg’s car, presumably flying in when he hit the windshield. After a five-month investigation, Noem called for Ravnsborg’s resignation and he was charged with three misdemeanors with a possible 90 days in jail.
Tilsen? He faces up to 16 and a half years.
During the fall campaign, Trump supporters often could be seen waving flags saying “Fuck Your Feelings.” Noem has adapted a more telegenic take on the slogan that has inevitably trickled down to her citizens. While South Dakota’s reservations have a “We’re all in this together” feel, the rest of the state is more self-absorbed.
One night I stop at the decidedly misnamed Cheers Lounge. As MMA bouts play on the television, karaoke is in process. There are duets and a drunken old man singing Merle Haggard’s “Swinging Doors.” I nurse a vodka tonic, when a kind old woman comes over to my table. She points at my mask and addresses me in a South Dakota nice voice.
“Honey, you don’t need to wear that in here.”
She’s probably 65 or 70, so I hope she is at the top of the vaccine list.
The next morning, I seek the soothing waters of the Watiki Water Park, where hundreds of kids and their unmasked parents lounge in tepid, humid waters. Spotting my mask, notepad, and fogged glasses, a parent shouts at me: “It’s winter, what the hell else are we supposed to do with our children?”
Covid aside, this is the upside of the Noem approach. The park closed for a month when the pandemic began, but since then has been running at full throttle. Currently, the park is adding 20 more tables where parents can drink beers while the kiddos splash away. Business is booming, and that isn’t by accident. The park has been targeting tourists within a 500-mile drive.
Watiki is just doing God’s work. “I have people from Texas and California coming up to me and saying, ‘Thank you for being open and being somewhere I can bring my family,’ ” a staffer tells me. Another asks me if I need a towel.
Thanks, but I won’t be staying.
Aweek later, I remember that Noem said those not comfortable with her maskless land could stay home. I take her advice and gas up my car.
Much had transpired over the winter. No mask mandate came out of Pierre, but the budget did include a request for $5 million to buy Noem a new plane. It was scuttled by the predominantly Republican Legislature after it emerged that Noem had used the existing state plane for travel to political events. On the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, Noem wrote an op-ed for Fox claiming only 1,690 South Dakotans had died rather than the widely accepted number of more than 1,900. Her administration used the statistical sleight of hand of counting only those whose deaths were “caused” by Covid, not those who died with Covid. With that clever accounting, the Noem Administration magically reduced Covid-related deaths by more than 11 percent.
Her star was ascending in Republican circles with the Mar-a-Lago fundraiser and an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual event. The news that Lewandowski would helm Trump’s PAC was another good sign. At CPAC, Noem wore the same sleeveless red dress that she wore at Rushmore. “Let me be clear, Covid didn’t crush the economy,” said Noem. “The government crushed the economy.” Later she added, “I don’t know if you agree, but Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot.” That brought her a standing ovation. At the souvenir stand, Lewandowski was spotted holding a poster of Noem in a cowboy hat, staring into the far distance under the words “America’s Governor.”
Still, something essential is missing from her act. Noem is not a beguiling or charismatic public speaker. Nor has she exhibited an ability to go into full-rage mode like Trump. If she is going to keep the MAGA crowd entertained, that has to improve. “She’s learning the Trump language and using social media to go after people,” says Miller. “But her performance at CPAC was robotic. Maybe she’ll get better with time.”
I leave Sioux Falls and head west. I stop for coffee at Wall Drug, and take a loop around Mitchell’s Corn Palace, two of South Dakota’s pre-Covid charm factories. I think about Noem and how her quest for greatness and the Trumpian twisting of facts have given her citizens the false sense that all is well. Numbers are currently down and vaccines are being distributed, but who knows how she will handle a potential third wave with a more virulent variant? Actually, we do know.
Tonight, there are more public events to hold and more people to make sick. I pass Rapid City and the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, where the governor is hosting the annual Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo. There are hundreds of cowboy hats and few masks. Noem waves and the crowd rises to its feet. The PA announcer shouts into his mic, “I wish there were 50 governors like [we have] here.”
I do the per-capita math in my head and figure if we had 50 Noems we’d have another 200,000 dead.
I drive on for an hour through a snow squall before turning off for Deadwood. The onetime gold-rush town is now known best as the source material for Al Swearengen’s 279 utterances of “cocksucker” during Deadwood’s three-season run on HBO. It is now a frontier-village theme park; there’s the Swearengen Inn and ticky-tacky shops where you can pose your baby dressed up as, I don’t know, a Deadwood-era baby? I’m looking for Saloon #10, the direct descendant of the bar where gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok took a bullet in the back of the head while holding a pair of eights and aces.
Or so they say. Much of Hickok’s legend was selfinvented by a man who changed his name three times. Did he shoot some bad men? Probably. Did he shoot good men in the back for spite? Most definitely. It all fits. Deadwood is the ultimate print-the-legend town in a state ruled by a magical-realism governor.
I walk through the doors and, like Hickok, take a seat with my back to the door. Deadwood is corona convenient — five states are within a 90-minute drive. But nowhere is as virus-brave as Saloon #10, where men toss darts, drunkenly tackle one another in front of their delighted women, and play poker until they are broke. All before 9 p.m. The sawdust on the floor, originally placed there to soak up blood, probably doesn’t work as efficiently against the coronavirus.
I carve out a two-bar-seat safety zone and protect it like an ancient Deadwooder would guard his claim. I ask Cal, the bartender, about business. He has worked here for more than a decade.
“Never better,” says Cal, his long beard flecked with beer suds. “And I mean never better. Ever.”
I go back to my no-Covid zone and search my phone for a hotel room, until a man in a cowboy hat interrupts me. “Do you mind if my wife takes that empty seat?” He asks in a way that is less asking and more telling. I may talk a good Covid game, but when challenged I cave like a spineless jellyfish.
But the man has tricked me. Instead of his wife, a toothpick-chewing, six-foot-four-inch, 300-pound dude shows up 10 minutes later and wedges himself onto the barstool and orders a Diet Coke.
The first guy shrugs.
“He’s prettier than my wife.”
And they laugh with a cowboy crescendo that you would see only on, well, Deadwood. His giant friend is closer to me than I allow my own kin. I say a prayer for both of their wives. Giant guy sizes me up.
“You don’t seem to be having a good time. What’s the matter, brother?” He eyes my mask. “You think that is going to protect you?” He looks at his buddy and grins.
I get my burger to go. I drive on icy state Route 99, heading out of town. I slow when I see a sign that is often placed on the sites of South Dakota highway fatalities. Like much of South Dakota, the sign is brutal and to the point: “WHY DIE?”
Only the Snow Queen can answer that one.