South Dakota leaders from the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux nations pushed back against threats of legal action from Republican Gov. Kristi Noem if they did not remove nine COVID-19 checkpoints on roads leading onto reservation land.
“Gov. Noem miscalculates our dedication to protect our most vulnerable people,” said Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner on a Facebook video posted over the weekend. “We are not moved by threats, as they come from a position of weakness.”
Bear Runner called threats of legal action “unhelpful.”
“Many have been inconvenienced by the current situation but the virus does not differentiate between members and non members,” said a statement from Cheyenne River Chairman Harold Frazier. “We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death.”
Frazier accused Noem’s office of potentially provoking violence over the checkpoints.
“Ignorant statements and fiery rhetoric encourage individuals already under stress from this situation to carry out irrational actions,” Frazier added. “The purpose of our actions is to ‘save lives rather than save face.'”
Meanwhile, 17 South Dakota lawmakers with tribal land within their districts sent a letter over the weekend to the governor’s office protesting the order and saying a lawsuit would cost taxpayer dollars, the West River Eagle reported.
“We do not wish to be party of another lawsuit that will ultimately cost the people of South Dakota more money,” the lawmakers wrote. “We wish to work with all parties involved for a reasonable, legal, and appropriate solution that address the concerns of all sovereigns involved.”
Since mid-March, checkpoint monitors have been stopping cars before they enter the Oglala reservation on on BIA Highway 41 asking drivers if they have a fever or cough and whether they are on official business, KOTA TV reported. About 30,000 people live on the reservation, which has reported one case of COVID-19.
The Cheyenne River Sioux started checkpoints April 2 to stop out-of state-visitors and non-tribal members from spreading COVID-19 on the reservation, the Rapid City Journal reported. About 13,000 people live on Cheyenne River tribal lands.
Both tribes asserted they had a sovereign right to stop traffic on roads within reservation boundaries.
Gov. Noem’s office demanded Friday that the checkpoints be removed within 48 hours or the tribes would face legal action.
“[T]ribes must consult with the state of South Dakota and enter into an agreement with the state before closing or restricting travel on state or U.S. highways,” the governor’s office said.
South Dakota’s Gov. Noem is one of the few U.S. governors who did not impose stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic. In April, the Sioux Falls Smithfield Foods meat packing plant was determined to be the nation’s top coronavirus hot spot with more than 1,100 confirmed cases.
The state’s confirmed cases totaled 3,614 with 34 deaths, according to the South Dakota Department of Health website. Of positive cases, 6 percent were of Native American ethnicity.
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