New Oglala president talks COVID, long winter

Kevin Killer (AP Photo/Rapid City Journal, Chris Huber, File)

Mary Annette Pember

Longtime South Dakota state legislator Kevin Killer and other newly elected leaders face challenging times ahead

Mary Annette Pember 
Indian Country Today

Kevin Killer has lots of experience negotiating with powerful politicians who outnumber him.

Prior to his Nov. 3 election as president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Killer served in South Dakota’s state Senate and House for 10 years as a Democrat in Republican-controlled legislatures.

“Since Republicans were in the majority, I really learned how to listen during my tenure in the House and Senate,” said Killer, 41.

He hopes to bring the same qualities of respect, patience and ability to work with others to his role as president.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe’s government is made up of a 20-member council that includes a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. Council members serve two-year terms and represent nine districts on Pine Ridge, one of the country’s largest reservations.

Killer beat out incumbent President Julian Bear Runner and takes office in the first week of December.

Kevin Killer, newly elected president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. (photo courtesy Kevin Killer)
(Photo courtesy of Kevin Killer)

He begins his term during challenging times as the tribe struggles to protect its citizens from spiking COVID-19 infections. Tribal leadership has clashed with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and other state politicians who, so far, have not mandated any restrictions, lockdowns or mask requirements.

Both North and South Dakota are suffering some of the worst outbreaks in the country.

In the past year, tribal leaders locked down the reservation at various times, closing its roads to outside traffic and prohibiting gatherings.

Killer supports an ongoing mask mandate and did not dismiss the possibilities of future lockdowns for the community if needed.

“We’ve been in pandemic mode since March; it’s important to continue to gauge the community’s mental health as we move forward,” he said.

Helping the tribe prepare for the cold winter months ahead is also high on his agenda.

Killer was motivated to run for president in part by a spiritual experience.

“I didn’t run against anyone as much as followed up on a calling and understanding that I have experience and skills to offer to my community,” he said.

Killer, whose Lakota name is Close to the Earth, worked at Pizza Hut in Pine Ridge as a youth and attended Oglala Lakota College before entering state politics with the Democratic Party.

Supporter Sandy Leah wrote on Killer’s Facebook page, “Congratulations, you are in good company with Alicia as your vice president and in the same week as the Biden/Harris win. Bright future for all of us.”

Alicia Mousseau, newly elected Vice President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. (Photo from Facebook)
Alicia Mousseau, newly elected Vice President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. (Photo from Facebook)

Alicia Mousseau was elected as vice president; a trained clinical psychologist, Mousseau specializes in trauma informed care and works for the University of Montana’s Native Children’s Trauma Center.

“The executive committee together can have a unified force and help guide the whole system and provide some leadership and stability,” Mousseau said during one of her Facebook campaign videos.

Killer’s potential plans include broadcasting council meetings including executive board meetings and setting up a mobile council office to give citizens greater access to leadership.

“People really want to see transparency in tribal government; we want to be mindful of that going forward,” he said.

“The biggest thing is to make use of available social media channels; people want to make sure they know what’s going on every day.”

Other plans include moving forward with constitutional reform.

“We want to help rebuild trust with the community.”

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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.

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