Kevin Killer wants young people to take control of their future. The former South Dakota state senator has spent his career lifting up Native American communities and encouraging youth to get involved in public service.
As the co-founder of Advance Native Political Leadership, Killer works to educate and inspire the younger generation on reservations to participate in every area of government. A native of Denver and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, Killer moved to the state in 2002 in order to be closer to the Pine Ridge Reservation community. While pursuing a degree at Oglala Lakota College, he heard peers and tribe members voice concerns about social issues such as health care and education.
“I understood that if we don’t have adequate and good voices at the table representing our community, it hurts us in the long run,” he said.
This realization prompted Killer to seek out opportunities in the political field. In 2004, he volunteered as a field organizer for Stephanie Herseth during her special-election campaign for the South Dakota House of Representatives. Herseth won the election. Killer says he was drawn to Herseth’s campaign because it was one of the first times in his life he had seen a candidate reach out to the Native community. “It was interesting to see one of the candidates focus on the Native vote,” he said. “It was nice to see a campaign care enough to engage and try to get Native voters to turn out.”
Working on Herseth’s campaign taught Killer how to build up a platform on issues important to his community. During this time, he realized the young members of his community weren’t receiving adequate representation in the state legislature. Shortly after, he set a goal to become a campaign manager. But after encouragement from peers to run for office, he decided to take the leap and launch his own campaign in 2008 for the South Dakota House of Representatives, to represent the 27th District. Killer, who was only 29 at the time, ran with the goal of encouraging the younger generation to take a stand and run for office. He says he was motivated by the people in his tribe, half of which were under the age of 30.
“Seeing that big of a population and not having any government or elected officials represent my youth group was a real wake-up call,” he said. “Win or lose, it was about setting the example so other young people could see me run. Sooner or later, we’re all going to be in a position where we need to step up for our communities.”
After winning the election, Killer was abruptly faced with an unexpected task: educating lawmakers about the issues surrounding Native communities. He spent much of his time mentoring government officials and bringing them up to speed about the concerns of Native Americans across the state. Killer supported bills on additional funding for education, preserving clean waters of the Missouri River, and recognizing an official indigenous language in the state. “No one knew what the conditions were,” he said. “We had people in the Legislature who had never been to a reservation. It was just kind of crazy. But it’s the reality in a big state.”
Pushing progressive legislation in a red state required building strong relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Although the state Legislature initially tended to vote strictly along party lines when Killer took office, he says both sides were eventually able to work together to find solutions for the problems that were brought to the table.
One issue Killer was able to pass with bipartisan support was changing the name of the county that’s home to the Pine Ridge Reservation. The county was founded in 1875 and named for Peter Shannon, a chief justice of the South Dakota Territory Supreme Court. Shannon later served on a commission that forced tribes to negotiate away their land. Killer’s bill to change the name was supported by 80% of county voters at a November 2014 referendum, and in March 2015, both branches of the South Dakota legislature voted overwhelmingly to officially rename it Oglala Lakota County.
“We’ve had some Republicans champion a lot of our issues,” he said. “We realized it wasn’t a Democrat or Republican issue. It was a human issue. It was a South Dakota issue.”
During his time as a representative, Killer served on the Judiciary, State Affairs, Education, and Taxation committees. In 2017, he was elected to the South Dakota state Senate, where he served on the Local Government and Health and Human Services committees. He also faced some controversial issues that drew national coverage, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline. The pipeline would transfer crude oil from Canada to the U.S., crossing through reservations and roads in Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Killer has spoken out at several protests against the construction of the pipeline, saying a spill from the line could be catastrophic for local communities.
“Every five years, you have to replace those roads because the land changes,” Killer said. “It’s just natural erosion.The current route [of the pipeline] is going through that natural erosion part. Common sense tells you that something is going to break at some point. Who’s going to have to clean that up?” Lawmakers have previously introduced legislation that would provide funding to clean up around the pipeline if a leak occurs. Still, Killer isn’t impressed. He says any breakage in the pipeline can be harmful to farmers, ranchers, and other residents: “That’s not right for everyone who has to live around that pipeline and depend on that water source.”
In January, after a decade in the state Legislature, Killer stepped down from office. He decided not to run for reelection and instead sought out opportunities that allow him to serve his community as a nonprofit consultant. He is a member of the inaugural class of senior fellows here at Prism, and recently he joined the board of directors of the Billie Sutton Leadership Institute, an organization that aims to prepare the next generation of leaders for prominent positions. He has also become a fellow for Open Society Foundations, the world’s largest private funder of groups working for justice, democratic governance, and human rights.
Although he still speaks out against the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, Killer says protests in the state have recently died down due to Senate Bill 189, which was signed into law earlier this year. The law is aimed at Keystone XL pipeline protestors, and gives the state of South Dakota permission to prosecute those who engage in “riot boosting.”
As far as his political future goes, Killer says he has no immediate plans to run for public office. While he hasn’t ruled out a potential bid for U.S. Congress someday, his current focus is on youth engagement. He says he has spent his career working to build his skill set and expand his knowledge on the important issues in his state. He wants young people in his community to do the same, and to feel inspired to help where they’re needed.
“At some point, you'll be able to tell your own story of your community,” Killer said. “That might be through media, that might be through government, that might be through legislation. You’ll have your own values that you can articulate that people really care about and want to rally around.”
Carolyn Copeland is a writer, radio producer, and podcast producer based in the San Francisco Bay area, and owner of Carolyn Copeland Consulting.