News (USA)

Kristi Noem forces university employees to drop pronouns & tribal affiliations from email signatures

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem discusses what she describes as a drug cartel presence in the state’s tribal lands on Friday, May 17, 2024, at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre, South Dakota.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem discusses what she describes as a drug cartel presence in the state’s tribal lands on Friday, May 17, 2024, at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre, South Dakota. Photo: Samantha Laurey / Argus Leader / USA TODAY NETWORK

Megan Red Shirt-Shaw and her husband, John Little, are University of South Dakota employees. They both have included their pronouns and their tribal affiliations in their email signatures for some time now. In Red Shirt-Shaw’s words, “The ability to share my tribal affiliation as well as gender pronouns signals that I am a person who values the lived experiences of others.”

In March, both Red Shirt-Shaw and Little were told via a written warning from the University of South Dakota to stop as it was a violation of a new policy that the South Dakota Board of Regents had implemented in December.

“I believe the exact wording was that I had ‘five days to correct the behavior.’ If my tribal affiliation and pronouns were not removed after the five days, then administrators would meet and make a decision whether I would be suspended (with or without pay) and/or immediately terminated,” Little said to the Associated Press.

It comes after Gov. Kristi Noem (R) instructed the Board of Regents to take action against “liberal ideologies” on college campuses, including asking the board to “remove all references to preferred pronouns in school materials” and ban drag shows on campuses. Gov. Noem appointed all nine of the voting members of the Board of Regents.

Taking away South Dakota public university employees’ ability to express their tribal affiliations and gender identity is just the latest in a slew of anti-indigenous actions she has committed: most South Dakota tribes do not allow Gov. Noem on their land due to her saying that tribal reservations are facilitating and benefiting from drug cartels and not taking care of children.

The policy is an act of double erasure towards queer Indigenous people, including two-spirit people. “Maybe their intent was to suppress pronoun usage in email signatures, but as is often the case with any limitation or suppression of free speech, there’s always unintended consequences,” said Samantha Chapman, an advocacy manager for the ACLU South Dakota. “There is also a component here of double erasure. There are plenty of queer Indigenous folks in South Dakota.”

Paulette Grandberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said South Dakota’s new policy didn’t surprise her, “given the current climate we’re in.”

Still, she said that “quite frankly, this is the first I’ve heard of a state university choosing to use branding standards to eliminate what obviously had become a practice of including pronouns and tribal affiliations to emails… it is a steady progression [towards the right],” said Grandberry Russell. “This comes in the form of communications and branding standards. Is that going to be the next frontier in sanitizing the realities of our differences?”

A spokesperson for the University of South Dakota did not answer whether administrative or faculty leadership had weighed in before the regents implemented the ban, which was labeled as a branding and marketing standard. She instead referred questions to the Board of Regents.

Regent’s spokesperson Shuree Mortenson said that all six universities that are under the regents board could review the decision, but the decision was ultimately made by the Board of Regents. Mortenson did not tell AP if any other staff or faculty had received warnings about using identifiers, instead saying the new policy provided “consistency to safeguard the brand.”

Mortenson also did not say whether the inclusion of tribal affiliation in official public university signature blocks had been considered by the regents before adopting it or whether tribal leaders in the state had been consulted.

“It was clear that they had not considered that this would impact Native employees,” Little said.

Via social media, Red Shirt-Shaw said that not being able to list her tribal affiliations was further erasure of Native people in South Dakota.

Both Red Shirt-Shaw and Little have shifted to stating their tribal affiliation and pronouns in the body of their emails, which the university currently allows.

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