For the past several days I’ve been writing about South Dakota Republican governor Kristi Noem’s efforts to have the Cheyenne River Sioux, in northern South Dakota, and the Oglala Lakota Sioux, in the southwest corner of the state, take down their Covid-19 checkpoints on highways entering their lands. This is a microcosm of decades of colonialism, the Republican policy of putting economics above public safety, the infringement on civil liberties by criminalizing peaceful protest, and the suppression of indigenous rights. Noem is one of the few governors, all Republicans, who refused to issue stay-at-home orders, like our governor, Kim Reynolds, in Iowa. Both states have significant outbreaks of Covid-19 in meat processing plants and the surrounding communities. Des Moines, Iowa, is one of the nation’s ten leading coronavirus hotspots.
The Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux do have stay-at-home restrictions.
RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA TV) – Pine Ridge Reservation remains under a 72-hour lockdown because of two new reported positive coronavirus cases. But the debate over checkpoints is still ongoing.
Debra White Plume wants checkpoints on the reservations to stay because “I am worried that it could spread like wildfire.”
This comes after two new positive cases were reported in the Wounded Knee district on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The same district where White Plume lives.
White Plume said Governor Kristi Noem is not doing enough to protect the people by not issuing statewide closures.
Pine Ridge Reservation resident says she is ‘worried coronavirus will spread like wildfire’ on reservation by Alexus Davita, KOATV, May 2, 2020
This has become an urgent problem now because the Oyate Health Center in Rapid City (formerly Sioux San Hospital) has had 16 new cases of COVID-19 in just more than a week
RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA-TV) – The Oyate Health Center in Rapid City (formerly Sioux San Hospital) has had 16 new cases of COVID-19 in just more than a week–that’s the word Monday night from Jerilyn Church, CEO of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board and the Oyate Health Center.
Monday evening a press release from CEO Jerilyn Church cited 12 new cases in the past week. However, later Monday evening Church told KOTA/KEVN-TV, she had learned of 4 additional new cases Monday, bringing the total to 16.
Church told us they have only been able to conduct testing for a little over a week.
In Monday evening’s press release, CEO Jerilyn Church says the Indian Health Service was immediately notified of the results and “the South Dakota Department of Health was notified that at least one of the positive cases is an employee at the Lacrosse Street Walmart in Rapid City. It is uncertain if other employees tested positive and to what degree the public may have been exposed.”
Church told KOTA/KEVN-TV Monday night, “We have to take this very seriously and it is the responsibility of organizations like ours and public entities to be very transparent with the community on what we are dealing with.”
In a phone interview Monday night Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender says he and Church spoke both Sunday night and Monday.
Allender also said he’s very concerned about the 12 cases (which KOTA/KEVN later learned is now 16 cases) because those 12 cases are not from 12 different families but rather a smaller group of families, where the disease spread from family member to family member. He said the virus can impact entire families all at once.
COVID-19: 16 positive cases diagnosed at former Sioux San Hospital by Steve Long, KOTA TV, May 12, 2020
Prior to this news, I received the following from an email from the Lakota Peoples’ Law Center.
We have a potentially explosive situation at the Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge Reservations. If you’ve been looking at the news, you may have seen that South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has threatened our tribes with legal action because we have taken the rational step of setting up COVID-19 checkpoints on roads entering our homelands.
Native communities have the right to protect ourselves from the spread of disease, and the law is on our side. You can help. Email Kristi Noem right now and tell her to walk back her threat to Lakota tribes before lives are lost!
Governor Noem has failed to mandate common sense protections for tribes and all the people of her state during the COVD-19 pandemic, so the Oglala and Cheyenne River Nations have taken matters into our own hands by setting up these checkpoints on reservation roads to limit the pandemic’s spread.
They are not roadblocks, and there is no truth to Governor Noem’s repeated assertions that essential or emergency traffic is being detained or turned back. Here at Cheyenne River, we are requiring visitors to fill out a health questionnaire or travel through the reservation without stopping. And just yesterday, two more positive cases at Pine Ridge forced a 72-hour lockdown to enable contact tracing and keep folks safe.
Although Governor Noem asserts that the tribes have not engaged in adequate consultation with state officials, both the Oglala and Cheyenne River Nations have interacted with a swath of state agencies on this issue. 17 state senators have now published an open letter declaring that she has no legal authority to regulate activity on reservation roads without tribal consent.
Governor Noem in no position to issue threats. She’s failing to protect her own constituents within our jurisdiction, so we will. This is a life or death situation, and we have a right to live.
Wopila tanka — my gratitude for your action!
Madonna Thunder Hawk
Cheyenne River Organizer
The Lakota People’s Law Project
P.S. Our nations may be within South Dakota, but Governor Noem does not have the legal authority to allow COVID-19 onto our reservations.
Tell her to protect public health and safety for all of South Dakota, not instigate a health crisis at Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge! Following is the letter created by this link:
With the new COVID-10 cases reported from the Oyate Health Center I think it is clear that the tribal checkpoints should remain.
I stand in solidarity with the Cheyenne River and Oglala Lakota nations, and I call on you to stand down in your threat of legal action against the tribes for establishing checkpoints to protect their people.
Your focus should be on protecting the public health and safety of your state and surrounding regions during this COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than demanding that tribes remove checkpoints on roads entering the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations, you should be issuing stay-at-home orders, suspending evictions and utility shut-offs, and closing nonessential businesses in South Dakota.
Please respect the efforts of the Cheyenne River and Oglala Lakota nations to keep the COVID-19 pandemic away from their homelands. Both tribes maintain that they have liaised appropriately with state governmental agencies, and 17 state lawmakers have said the two tribes are within their rights to regulate the safety of their people with checkpoints.
There is a lack of evidence backing your claim that essential or emergency services have been compromised. Meanwhile, Pine Ridge is on a 72-hour lockdown because of two new cases of COVID-19. The tribe needs time to perform contact tracing, and you should not be standing in the way of it executing essential functions to keep people safe.
The sole stated purpose of both tribal governments is to stop or slow the spread of COVID-19. The world is watching, and you are on the wrong side of history.
Please retract your threat of legal action over the checkpoints and stand down. If you will not protect the tribes, at least let them protect themselves.
Transcript of the video above.
This is Chase Iron Eyes. I’m here on the Pine Ridge Reservation the Oglala Lakota Nation and we as you know we’re going through an existential threat. Indian tribes tribal nations have a prior and superior right to make our own laws and be governed by them. Kristi Noem is letting her entire state expose themselves to coronavirus. She has publicly stated that she’s going to rely on her constituents’ common sense and resiliency. Resiliency. This is a governor of one of our state’s, the state that currently illegally occupy our land. Kristi Noem knows that entirely half the state of South Dakota belongs to us, belongs to the Lakota Nation, the Great Sioux Nation. The Lakota people want nothing more than to be left alone. That’s all we’ve always ever wanted, was to be left alone, unmolested, undisturbed. Kristi Noem we are waiting for you to file your suit. You have no legal merit, no grounds. Our only job is to protect our children. That is our only reason for existing in this place at this time. So I want to let you know that we are completely dedicated to ensuring that we survive far after oppressive, extractive, capitalism and your colonial poison are gone. We rewrite the social contract in our own blood right now for a brand new America. This has been Chase Iron Eyes and I approve this message. thank you.
Tribal Nations — Highly Vulnerable to COVID-19 — Need More Federal Relief
American Indian and Alaska Native families are more vulnerable to the pandemic than U.S. residents overall due to the legacies of colonialism, racism, and the federal government’s failure to support these communities’ social and economic well-being. That has left tribal governments facing unique challenges in the current environment, including:
- A higher risk of COVID-19 complications. Despite health disparities between American Indians and Alaska Natives and the overall population, the federal Indian Health Service (IHS) budget was meeting just half of tribal health needs even before COVID-19, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported. The pandemic will stretch those IHS funds to the breaking point. American Indians and Alaska Natives also have higher rates of underlying medical conditions — such as heart disease, lung disease and asthma, diabetes, kidney and liver disease, and immune-compromising diseases —putting them at higher risk for COVID-19’s more dangerous effects.
- Housing and demographic challenges. Federal underfunding of tribal governments and communities has created a housing shortage on reservations that makes it hard for families to practice the social distancing needed to combat the virus. Sixteen percent of American Indian and Alaska Native households in tribal areas are overcrowded, compared to just 2 percent for all U.S. households. And while older people generally are among those more susceptible to the virus’ health effects, that’s especially true for American Indian and Alaska Natives: 10 percent of those aged 50 and older live in multigenerational households, versus 6.5 percent of their counterparts in the general population, partly given many tribal cultures’ emphasis on community and multigenerational living.
- Historic economic challenges. The virus and the sharp economic downturn that’s gathering momentum are disproportionately affecting large and important sections of tribal economies: gaming, tourism, hotels and conferences, retail, and resource and energy development. And unlike federal, state, and local governments, many tribal nations lack a tax base. Instead, they use tribal enterprises and member-owned businesses to generate vital revenue for public health, education, child care, and public safety, as well as for general government operations. Tribes are often their region’s largest employers and among the state’s largest, employing both Native and non-Native workers.
Tribal Nations — Highly Vulnerable to COVID-19 — Need More Federal Relief by Joshuah Marshall, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 4/1/2020