South Dakota tribes continue COVID-19 checkpoints

This video of South Dakota governor Kristi Noem’s (Republican) press conference was revealing in that every question, and there were many, after the governor’s statement was about the COVID-19 checkpoints. The governor kept implying that the checkpoints were interfering with some people entering the tribal land. The tribes say that isn’t true. At one point the governor said she wanted to make sure ambulances could get through. When asked if that had happened she backed off. When asked if the SD Highway Patrol would possibly be doing enforcement on tribal lands, she said there would first have to be an agreement with tribal law enforcement to do so. She kept saying she was looking for clarity and it looks like she could use it.

Karen Eagle, Oglala Sioux Tribe media relation specialist, said the tribe has received an outpouring of support from Indian Country and beyond.

“One message that I would really like to get out there is that the tribe just appreciates all of the support and the understanding of so many people that this is actually a sovereignty issue, this is a treaty issue,” Eagle said. “This goes to the very core of our existence as a tribal nation, that we have this inherent right to protect, not only our lands and our waters but the health and wellbeing of our own people,”

The Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Chairman Donovan White and Lower Brule Chairman Boyd Gourneau voiced public support for Cheyenne River and Oglala.

“All of our Seven Council Fires stand in unity with Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux Tribes,” White said. “The governor should work with her state legislators, work with the tribal chairmen, and councils, acknowledge the sovereign authority of the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux tribes and come up with a reasonable plan to assist them in protecting public safety and health of our Native people.”

Gourneau said Lower Brule has checkpoints on BIA roads to stop non-tribal-citizens’ access to tribal land and to popular water access to the Missouri River.

“We stand with our brothers. We must band together,” Gourneau said.

South Dakota tribes stand firm behind checkpoints by Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today, 5/10/2020

The issue pits an ambitious governor who has taken a mostly hands-off approach to restrictions on daily life during the pandemic against tribes who say her actions jeopardize their members. And it’s the latest flare-up in a relationship that has been tense since Noem took office in 2018, most notably in a longstanding conflict over construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Cheyenne River Sioux, in northern South Dakota, and the Oglala Lakota Sioux, in the southwest corner of the state, began their roadblocks in April. Both tribes cited the threat of the virus, combined with their vulnerable populations and poor medical facilities, as urgent reasons to control access.

“We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” Cheyenne River Sioux chairman Harold Frazier said in a statement.

He described a health care system on the reservation with eight hospital beds and six ventilators, saying that the infection could “spread like wildfire” if they weren’t vigilant.

The tribes say they are still allowing essential businesses onto the reservations and said the checkpoints were set up to keep out tourists or other visitors who could be carrying coronavirus infections. The reservations are collectively home to about 30,000 people.

Oglala Sioux president Julian Bear Runner called the state’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic “ineffective,” pointing to a spike in confirmed cases in the state after a mass testing event last week at a hot spot.

Noem’s uncomfortable relationship with tribes dates to her first year in office, in 2018. Noem, mindful of the tumultuous, costly and sometimes violent demonstrations in neighboring North Dakota over the Dakota Access pipeline, pushed the Legislature to pass laws that heightened penalties for violent protest against the Keystone XL pipeline.

South Dakota Gov. Noem, tribes in virus checkpoints standoff. Two Native American tribes in South Dakota continue to defy orders from Gov. Kristi Noem to take down road checkpoints the tribes had set up to stop coronavirus infections from spreading. By STEPHEN GROVES Associated Press, May 11, 2020

South Dakota has been one of the few states to not issue a stay-at-home directive to counter the coronavirus spread. As of Monday, 3,614 people in South Dakota have tested positive and 34 people have died, according to the state Department of Health. Almost 3,000 of the cases have been reported in Minnehaha County, where the state’s largest city, Sioux Falls, is located. Sioux Falls had seen a coronavirus spike recently at a meat packing facility. The numbers don’t appear to include the new Oglala cases.

Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge have two of South Dakota’s larger reservations, with tribal land larger than some states. As of Monday, both tribes have felt only minimal effects from the coronavirus as each have placed strict directives in place like curfews and stay-at-home requirements.

Frazier has described a health care system on his reservation with eight hospital beds and six ventilators, saying the infection could “spread like wildfire” if the tribe isn’t vigilant.

Tribes across Indian Country have set up checkpoints, including in Arizona and New Mexico, two places hit hard by the coronavirus. Some Alaska tribes have enacted travel restrictions to remote villages, some only accessible via air or water. Those have caused no major issues.

On his Facebook page, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., praised Frazier’s leadership. “Osda (good)! Another tribe standing strong for public health in a sea of resistance.”

South Dakota tribes stand firm behind checkpoints by Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today, 5/10/2020


In a Monday press conference, Noem affirmed that her office will take the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe to federal court, saying the checkpoints that were put in place last month on state and federal highways have prevented essential services from making their way to areas in need.

The restrictions require residents and non-residents to fill out a health questionnaire each time they enter or leave tribal lands. It also limits non-residents from entering the reservations unless on essential business or if the tribal government has granted them a travel permit. However, those who wish to drive straight through are allowed to pass, according to the tribes.

Meanwhile, the governments of both tribes say the decision to create an “island of safety” by restricting non-essential travel is well within their rights.

“We have every legal right to do what we’re doing,” Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier told MSNBC on Sunday.

Both tribes have issued lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and curfews, while Noem has refrained from enacting such measures across the state.

Frazier and Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner contend the tribal measures were put in place out of concern that an outbreak could overwhelm their limited health care facilities.

Checkpoint Clash Escalates Between South Dakota Governor, Tribal Leaders By VANESSA ROMO, Boise State Public Radio, 5/12/2020

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