“Often in politics, the picture that people get is not who you really are or why you’re doing what you’re doing . . . my decisions come from a place of truly loving people.”
KRISTI NOEM is the daughter of a cowboy and a cowboy’s wife who raised their four children with strong family values. Growing up, she was a cowboy, and she did all the things that ranch life in the American West demands— herding cows, driving tractors, spending more time outdoors than in—and as a result, “I never knew I was missing parties when I was young because we were always together as a family.” Today, the 33rd (and first female) governor of her home state of South Dakota and married mother of three children draws from her upbringing to build the singular foundation of her Republican governorship since she was elected 2019. As the fourth woman to represent South Dakota in Congress, she is vocal in ending America’s dependency on foreign oil. And she gained national notoriety when she explicitly refused to impose national COVID-19 mandates. It all boils down to one thing: “A lot of people have tried to put labels on me, but right now I’m focused on being Kristi Noem and getting my message out to South Dakotans.
Tell me about your father?
My dad was a cowboy. Everything he did was an adventure. I was the third of four children and a tomboy. My favorite thing to do every day was to spend time with him. He was always outside working or hunting. We enjoyed chasing cows, driving tractors, and working together. What was remarkable about my mom and dad is that they recognized the value of having a strong family and spending time together. I always tell people that I never knew I was missing parties or other events with my friends when I was young, because we were always together as a family, doing activities.
Did your siblings remain on the ranch?
Yes, they stayed on the ranch for many years. When I was elected to Congress, it was the first time in 20 years that any of us had left the ranch, to do something different. I was bought out of the family business but kept land and some equity. My sister also decided to exit and was bought out at that time too. So even though we all live very near each other in South Dakota, you never quite leave home. My dad said, all the time, “God isn’t making any more land, so don’t ever sell it.” We have always stayed very tied to the land. My sister lives a couple of miles from me, and my brothers live on the original farm, which is about 15 miles west of us. That is considered “in the neighborhood” here in South Dakota.
How far is your family ranch from the Capitol?
It is about a three-hour drive straight east. We go back and forth quite a bit and move around the state wherever we need to be for different meetings. South Dakota is a big state and yet we travel to other communities and cities on different days. The whole place feels like home.
What differentiates your responsibilities as governor from Congress?
It was a huge life change for me when I was elected to Congress. Before that, I spent every day outside working with and surrounded by my family. To suddenly get on an airplane and head to Washington, DC and sit in meetings all day was probably the biggest adjustment for me.
Why did you leave Congress?
Governors are the CEOs, and they make decisions every day that impact people’s lives “right now.” I wanted to come home and spend more of my time in this state. Even though I still am in meetings a good bit of the day, I do get the chance to travel the state and spend more time outdoors.
As a junior member of Congress, in a completely different environment, how did you adapt? What were the things that you did to make that experience sustainable?
It felt as though I was attending college again, which was very strange for me. You pack up a suitcase, leave your family and stay somewhere that is temporary during the week and then return home on the weekends. The first month or two was incredibly lonely, something you could not have prepared for. You spend the majority of your time alone traveling back and forth. Walking from meeting to meeting, staff is there, but typically one at a time and not all day long. Very few people spend quality time with you. You leave your community at home and miss milestones like birthday parties and baby showers. Over time you lose contact with people close to you, which for me was challenging. I realized that if I was going to be gone from my family, kids, and my husband, that I was going to make as big a difference as I possibly could, so I was going to forge relationships that were necessary. I realized quickly that DC didn’t have any rules. It was broken and to get something done is tough because of the bureaucracy.
I also realized that everything was controlled by leadership. If I was going to get a bill through committee, I needed that chairman to want to help me. If I wanted to get a bill off the house floor, I needed the majority leader and the speaker to help. I tried to figure out ways that I could talk to them about how important South Dakota was. I didn’t have a delegation because South Dakota gets one member in the US House of Representatives. I learned how to build a coalition on every single bill. Each topic required completely different members. While I worked on agriculture bills with one group, I worked on tax reform with other members, and national security issues with others. I knew everybody because my delegation consisted of just me and I needed those relationships to get things done.
In Congress did you make lifelong friendships?
I did make lifelong friendships with a few people. I tended to seek out others that shared the same kind of lifestyle. I brought my kids with me a lot and bonded with others that mostly were ranchers and farmers and their families. It was important to me for people to understand how tied I was to my family and to the land.
Were there women you came to admire?
There are some wonderful women in Congress. I am a big fan of Jackie Walorski from Indiana. She is tough, but she is normal, which is great. I served on Ways and Means with Lynn Jenkins from Kansas, and we spent a lot of time together doing tax reform. We still text about being “grandmas” together. There are good people there and they are just as frustrated with how that place operates. It is so broken that a lot of good people choose not to stay.
Now that you are stateside, is spending time outdoors important to you?
It’s very important to me. There is something about the outdoors that heals me. If I can spend a day outdoors working, chasing cows, riding horses, that restores me. Most people do not know that I am more of an introvert. I love people. But to really feel refreshed and relaxed, I need to have time with animals or be by myself. It is what I love to do, to get back to work with a fresh perspective. Being outside is a big part of what keeps me happy and enjoying life.
How do you manage the constant traveling?
If I am traveling, my staff knows spending time outdoors is important to me. I get up and exercise every day. If I am somewhere that is not 40 below zero, I will go for a run. But beyond that, they try to incorporate a visit to a farm or ranch. If I’m in the state, I take a little bit of downtime to go fishing in the morning before I start long meetings that day. Everybody in my life recognizes the outdoors as important.
Does your husband also require time outdoors to stay balanced?
He likes it a lot. He owns an insurance agency and is “out and about” visiting people throughout the day. He is also a big sports fan. While I like the hiking, hunting, and being outdoors, he prefers sports. South Dakota doesn’t have any professional sports teams, so he is a big Vikings fan, which leads to a lot of heartbreak for our family. He also is a LA Dodgers fan. He grew up with a father who was a big Brooklyn Dodgers fan. They watched the Dodgers together when he was a little boy and he has always been a Dodgers fan too.
Who is your favorite horse?
His name is Ashwood Iceman and is the horse that typically people see in pictures of me carrying the American flag at a rodeo, or even on the Buffalo Roundup. He is only eight years old and will be around for a number of years yet. He really has been a wonderful horse because I have put him in some incredibly impossible situations, not just doing ranch work and chasing buffalo, but riding into the professional bull riding event with fireworks going off and flames on the arena floor. He just handles it all like a pro.
What kind of breed?
He’s a quarter horse which we typically use on the ranch. They are a versatile horse, quick and they have a lot of cow sense too.
Are you ever frightened?
No. I made a decision years ago to not live “in” fear.
I’m very interested in this idea of fear, particularly with women that ascend. Do you have any fear?
Not fear that sits with me and lasts any period of time. What people think of me can be difficult in politics because I want people to like me and to know my heart. Often in politics, the picture that people get is not who you really are or why you’re doing what you’re doing. The hardest part of this job is that while I don’t want to be a people pleaser, I do want people to really know the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing. My decisions come from a place of truly loving people. Unfortunately, in the political arena today, that concept is not what the media wants to show or what your opponents want to talk about. That bothers me the most, but I wouldn’t put that in a category of fear.
How old were you when you decided to live without fear?
As a 13 or 14-year-old I was pretty insecure. I remember my mom sitting me down at the kitchen table. She read me a passage of scripture out of the Bible that talked about how God saw me instead of how I was viewing myself, which was as weak and vulnerable. I saw myself as someone who could not accomplish a lot. What was interesting about that moment was that I believed the words she read. I realized how powerful words are, they have power when you speak. When she sat me down and told me that I was somebody who did not have to be scared, that I could be confident and that I could do big things because that was what my life was called to do, I said, “Okay,” and it changed my whole perspective. Living without fear is a decision. I certainly am a normal person who at times becomes worried, but I choose not to be afraid. I make a conscious decision not to use certain kinds of language either because words have power.
What was that catalyst for your mother sitting you down?
She thought at the time that I could potentially be suicidal because I had such a poor self-image. She was troubled because she felt I lacked a purpose for my life. She knew I had struggled for a while, so she decided to spend a little time talking to me. There probably are a lot of parents, especially in this day and age with social media, with kids facing different pressures than I ever had to face, who are having similar conversations . . .
What was the source of your questioning?
I was a perfectionist. In high school I wasn’t just on the basketball team and playing volleyball. I was also a boys’, basketball and football, cheerleader. I was the President of the National Honor Society, editor of the school newspaper and acted in the yearly plays. I attended a small school where everyone participated in all activities. I never missed an activity and always wanted to be better at everything that I did. I set a pretty high standard for myself.
Is there a skill set that you can describe as essential to your achievements?
One thing that my brain automatically does is that when I see a problem, I don’t spend any time thinking about the problem. Instead, I think what are my solutions and what are we going to do next? I try to describe this to people that work with me, on a daily basis. My dad raised us that way. I tell a story consistently about how we were putting up a fence one day. He wanted to pound a post in the ground, but the post pounder was still in the pickup. He was frustrated that he had to wait for me to run to the pickup and get it and bring it back. When I brought it back to him, I was probably 10 or 11 years old, he said to me, “You should know what I need before I know what I need.” I just remember thinking as a little girl, “How am I ever going to know what you need before you know what you need?” But he was teaching us to be strategic thinkers, to think three or four steps ahead. What will he need next? I have to have it ready before he even has to ask for it. That is how I approach a lot of things. I don’t decide necessarily on, will this help today? I tend to look longer term for the ramifications of doing something for the next 10 years. Will our kids have to deal with this decision?
How old were you when your father had the accident?
I was 22 at the time. I was married, attending college and eight months pregnant with our first daughter. It was on March 10th, and it was devastating for our family.
If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?
How is my dad. You would think after 28 years that I wouldn’t miss him. but I believe that is the power that one life can have. And it wasn’t that he gave us incredible wealth or material things, but he gave us a book of wisdom that we refer to often, so many life lessons by just how he lived. You would think you would get over losing somebody, but you never quite do.
You were married at age 20, did your husband know immediately that you were “the one?”
He didn’t, it took him a while. He was two years older than I and we went to high school together. He was a friend of my brothers. I liked him first and a friend of mine was dating his cousin. I did not let him know that I thought he was somebody I was interested in until he went to college. I was still in high school. Every once in a while, he would come home from college, but he was very shy. He wouldn’t even talk to me in public. He would follow me home at night and we would end up talking at my house or sitting in the driveway. We probably did that for six months before we ever even let anybody see us talking in public. It was probably a backwards “country” way to start dating.
He had only brothers. How many?
Two brothers and he is the middle son. He was always involved in sports, the quarterback of the football team, pitcher for the baseball team and played basketball. Sports were supposed to be more important than girls.
Do you make your career decisions jointly?
We do. We don’t do anything unless the family decides and we spend a lot of time in prayer. Decisions come very easy for me, and they come very hard for him.
Is faith the cornerstone to who and what you are?
I would say my faith is really the foundation of who I am. I was raised in a family that went to church every time the doors were open. I would get up at four or five in the morning and my dad would already be reading the Bible in the living room. I always felt that being a farmer and rancher, we were special because if you look, the Bible often talks about sowing and reaping and your barns overflowing. I thought we are truly chosen by God to do what we do. It was a funny way for a little girl to grow up. There are so many challenges in the world today. I see people being so shaken. What helps to not be shaken is a big belief that God is in control.
As you know this is ELYSIAN’s “green” issue. In that context, what does the term “environmental sustainability” mean to you?
For me, sustainability means responsible stewardship. It is a word that has been used by people with completely different agendas. There are some people that have used sustainability for communicating control. Real sustainability recognizes that the resource is finite. I want to make sure the resource is still here 50, a hundred years from now. There is an undervalued merit to consistency and to keeping quality which is really what sustainability means to me.
You’ve been very purposeful with the ecosystem in South Dakota. What is the habitat program?
When I first was elected, I talked about starting a habitat program, which for a governor in South Dakota is very different. This program was about educating the public about the importance of diversity on our landscape and that animals as well as people are dependent upon how we care for the landscape around us. As a little girl my dad taught us that you don’t sell land because God’s not making any more land and it is a resource and a treasure that you should cherish and take care of. For farmers and ranchers, land is your gift to your children. You may not have a big bank account or stocks and bonds, but you do have your land. It really is your legacy that you give to them. I wanted the public to recognize that what we have here in South Dakota is very special and there are not many places in the world like this.
When I was very young, an early teenager, my dad bought the ranch that I live on. He put me in the pickup, and he said, “I want to show you something.” We drove about 15 miles and got out of the truck in the middle of a pasture which was very different than our original farm, with rolling hills and open space. He said, “What do you think?” And I said, “I love it.” And he said, “Well, I just bought it.” He started to teach me about how this land had never been broken and that this one little flower in particular only grew on native land. Once you turn the land, plow it, the flowers will never grow again. He taught me how special that land was. I said, “I want to live here someday.” And he said, “Well, I’ll let you buy it from me if you want to.” but there was no free lunch in his world. Taking the time to teach your kids that kind of lesson causes them to value things. I think that maybe my generation hasn’t done a good job of that.
Can you explain what you mean by “consistency” when it comes to sustainability?
Whenever you make a dramatic change to the environment, land or to waterways, it will have a ripple effect. There may be times there is something you should be doing, but you need to take into account that ripple effect and recognize there are consequences for every action that you take, good or bad. Often it is important to have balance and recognize that nature had a plan from the beginning, which is something that we should always take into consideration. Looking at how we are protecting our natural resources, for me, the consistency in policy and approach is critical. If an entity is fundamentally changing different approaches every few years, it is damaging to the wildlife, the environment and water quality. Using the facts and the data to make decisions and then being consistent with policy and approach is what will really make the long-term difference.
We argue a lot over what needs to be done to address our climate. Unfortunately, “climate change” is a term that has been used to push agendas and implement programs that control people’s lives, take their money, their resources and remove “decision making” out of their hands. We also are held to a very different standard than other countries. The term “climate change” has a lot of baggage around it. By using different terms and speaking clearly about caring for our air, water, land and making sure we’re making wise and balanced decisions, we can move the ball forward. Recognizing the consequences certain decisions have on people’s daily lives should be a part of those policies. We have incredible people doing big things to impact our environment. But they are also doing it in ways that do not devastate the finances of middle income families who get up every day and work 50 to 60 hours a week to put food on the table. We have to take it all into account as well.
Image courtesy of Alamy Stock Photos
With the pipeline, is there policy balance?
In deciding if a pipeline should be utilized or not, you have to take into effect what we are doing today and what creates a better situation tomorrow. We are moving oil over our roads and rail, which is far more dangerous than moving it through a pipeline. The technology and developments that have gone into these pipelines, are designed to prevent spills. If they do spill, it is minimal compared to what would happen if you had train cars tip over and accidents that happen on the roads, especially going through different cities and populated areas. All of the data and the facts around this discussion, point toward moving resources through a pipeline as a safer alternative for people, the environment, and our water. The added benefit is that it is much more efficient and therefore will drive down the costs for families. I am just a big believer that if all of those facts line up to the “benefit,” why would you not support something that is going to make a big difference for not just the people that live here, but also for resources that are going to be around for hundreds of years?
Do you feel the division is over control?
I think it is control, a lack of education, and lack of accurate information. In today’s world people want to read a headline and they do not go any farther. We are a bit lazy in understanding the real information and looking at facts. There is so much information put out that is not true and because that is never refuted it is seen as accurate. Sometimes it is difficult to cut through the noise. When it comes to the pipelines, it has been used as a political tool. We lose sight of the fact that the pipeline’s purpose was to protect the environment. How we’re dealing with those resources today is completely ignored.
How do you find common ground on wedge issues like climate and the pipeline?
We must keep having conversations. I think most of the disagreement over the pipeline has been with my Native American tribes. Never shutting the door to conversation is so important. I recently had tribal members here and we talked. I listened. While we may disagree on one or two issues, we agree on probably 80 to 90 percent of everything else. We will continue to work on those issues that are not aligned. Knowing that we are going to disagree on some issues should not stop us from doing big things together for the benefit of all people. The truth is not what people hear on the news at night when they turn on the TV, or for that matter, what people hear in the political arena. It is easier to be offended by someone than to work together, to find solutions. Unfortunately, I think the American people recently have been taking the easier route.
Where do you get your answers when you are unclear or confused?
It is very rare that I am confused about which way to go. I tend to always know what I think. My struggle is if my family or my team are not on board, which causes me to question. Pretty soon after I see a dilemma, I think I know what needs to be done. When I don’t have consensus with the people that I trust, I start to dig deeper into the issue and get more information.
Do you ever get too far ahead of the pack?
Yes. All the time.
How do you temper yourself when that happens?
That is what is funny about me. My entire family cannot believe I ended up in politics because I never have had a filter. From the time I was a little girl, I said whatever I thought without even thinking. I am the only person in my family that is involved in politics. They find that humorous today because the person without the filter ended up here. I think I have learned to just pause sometimes, that waiting and slowing things down for me at times is beneficial.
On one occasion, I wasn’t getting very good debate around policies with my staff. I said, “Everybody is so quiet, and no one is debating.” I was frustrated and I wanted to hear other perspectives. My chief of staff said, “Maybe you should try being quiet for a while.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, you are the governor, and nobody wants to argue with the governor. As soon as you say something or voice an opinion, it’s harder for them to speak up after you. So why don’t you just sit and listen for five, 10 minutes? And you’ll probably find that they’ll share their opinions more before you weigh in.” And it worked, he was right. It was a very good lesson because I forget the position I am in and sometimes people may not want to argue with me or say, “No, I think you’re wrong.” Just sitting, being quiet, and listening is extremely valuable because you get different perspectives and make better decisions.
How much of a sacrifice is it to serve in public office?
Being in politics is more of a burden for my family than it is for me, probably. I know that I signed up for this job, but they didn’t. People give their opinions on what kind of a job I’m doing to my mom, siblings, and my kids.
Every mother holding office has the most vulnerability when it comes to their children. Have yours “bought in” now?
They have been the entire time. It is interesting because I took them with me so much. They are very smart and know the policies better than almost anyone. They went to a school that allowed them to make up homework and travel to Washington with me for a whole week at a time. They sat in meetings with me and answered the phones in the office. Even today, if I can’t make it to a meeting, I’ll send one of them to speak on my behalf. I think it is powerful when one of my family members shows up, because it shows that this is important to us. They are and always have been more than willing to spend a lot of time doing this, and they know that I’m better when they’re with me.
Do they recognize the impact that you are making?
I don’t know. We don’t really talk about that. My girls do, they are very strong. I tell people all the time, those two women are going to be 10 times the leader I will ever be. Booker is my youngest and probably the most tender-hearted out of all of them. If it was going to be hard on one of them, it would be on him.
Because you’re his mother.
I’m his mom and he doesn’t like people going after me. There is also a part of him that would like everything to be peaceful and easy.
Does it make you feel guilty?
No, because I think they have had incredible opportunities and will be better off. My job is not to make their life easy. My job is to prepare them for life, and they are very well prepared for life. I think whatever comes their way, they will look at it from a perspective of “how do I deal with this and how do I fix it and leave things better.” That was my job.
What has been the biggest surprise, to date in public office?
How quickly something can happen and everything that day changes. Washington is very different because you have no control over your schedule. Literally somebody else could derail all your plans instantaneously. We have had a series of crises since I’ve been governor. The first year we had year-round flooding, hit by a bomb cyclone. We then had COVID, which no one could have predicted. This year we had tornadoes take out towns, fires, and situations where dangerous people have done bad things. No matter what you think is in store or think this is going to be a quiet week, there tends to be something that comes up.
As someone that is future focused, and the many the obstacles you face in the position, how do you keep going?
I don’t think about the obstacles. I really don’t think that my job is hard or that my life is difficult, either. I keep perspective. I tell my husband this quite often because we talk about challenges or upcoming things that are hard on my full schedule. I could be a farmer and I would still be working 20 hours a day. No matter what I do, it is my nature, and I can get obsessive. I tell him all the time when something bad happens, “You know what? We did not get a phone call that one of our kids has terminal cancer today. We did not find that somebody we dearly love was just killed in an accident. So, we’re good. We can handle whatever this is.” I think a lot of it is perspective. We saw people, especially during the pandemic, completely lose perspective. They listened to what was on the TV and what the experts were telling us. People stopped making rational decisions.
Women in politics are hit in one of three ways. They are vilified as promiscuous, the “B” word, or crazy. How did you navigate the mire?
I have been hit with all three, multiple times and I am shocked by it every time. I think people know me and we are such a transparent family. I don’t know of another elected official that puts their family life out there, with their kids. All the funny, awkward, difficult moments, we are an open book. I think that is what this job requires in this day and age, you have to be real. My reaction is to run into the fire, particularly when I think a lot of people would want to stay home and stay away from the news or stay away from the bad articles. We tend to schedule public events and gather our family and go spend time with people.
Do you do “forge on” without your family?
A lot of times I do, especially now that our children are grown because they have lives too. Public appearances do not always work for everybody’s schedule, especially since my husband still has a business and I have a granddaughter now, so everyone is
heading in different directions. But I tend to fight back a little bit and prove that they are wrong.
Is it possible to fight back in today’s media with the political polarization?
You never will get all the facts, or the truth with the media. I have learned that over the years. I never was quite as cynical as I am now. I literally have sent all the information on a story that the media requested, and they did not use any of what we
provided. They wanted to tell an emotional story. It has been a challenging political environment. I go into meetings where people that are in elected positions would not normally take questions and ask for questions because if something is difficult to talk about or an accusation has been made that is not true, I want to talk about it. If there is a subject that a lot of people want to avoid, I find it best to rip the Band-Aid off and just talk about it; expose the fact that the whole truth has not been put forward. I find the best public servants are people that never saw it in their future and were a little reluctant to do it, but also decided that they couldn’t just complain about things, that they needed to be willing to try to fix them.
What is your purpose and what do you want to accomplish?
I wish I could tell you because I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. To be a purposeful person is an incredible gift and discipline. I am very purposeful about the tasks I want to accomplish. But true purpose is also investing in people and spending time with people, which is where I fall short. I tend to be very task oriented.
When my time is over, I would hope that people would say she raised wonderful children, worked hard, never quit, saw a problem, and tackled it. I have no idea what the next year will bring either.
I never say, “I’m going to be a failure if I don’t do this,” because I never intended to be here, planned to be in DC. or in the legislature. I honestly have not planned out my life. If there is an opportunity, then we do it and I don’t wait for somebody else to say that it is their job. Growing up, it was never somebody else’s job to do something. It was “all of our work” to be done, and we did it. I will just do the work that I know I’m supposed to be doing, always making sure we are making good decisions, that impact families and have a long-lasting effect, not just for the next six months. I want my family to have the opportunity to grow up like I did, which I think was incredibly special.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
I would hope my legacy would be one of Integrity. “She did what she said she was going to do.”
What piece of advice you would give a young woman just entering maybe her twenties, that is uniquely yours?
To say yes. This world tells you to focus more on yourself, to say no to some things and to spend more time in reflection and less doing.
I would tell them the exact opposite. If somebody asks you to go do something, go do it. You don’t have to do it forever. You can do it for a few months. You can decide that is not for you and try something different. But if you say yes, you might meet somebody there that will change your life forever. You might find you have a gift or a talent that you had no idea that you had, it might be the one evening or the one meeting that changes the rest of your life.
Say yes and do it. One thing that I realized when I was serving in office was that men wake up in the morning with amazing confidence. They automatically assume they are the best person for the job and everybody around them should see it. Women, not so much. We tend to think, I don’t know if I can do that job. I don’t know if I’m good enough. I don’t know if I am the best person for it. Women need to be at that table. They have a completely different perspective than anybody else. The only way that we get good policy and good decisions is to hear all perspectives and to hear those different voices around the table. Women need to be there. It is not thinking that you are the best person, but your voice needs to be there, to be a part of the solution.
You said yes?
Image by Michale Panniccia