Due to a wholly inadequate federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, it has largely been up to states to execute their own plans to protect residents. State responses have varied widely, largely divided by party line: Democratic governors have imposed more restrictions and protections, while Republican governors have tended toward looser regulations and a “decide for yourself” mentality. South Dakota is one of just eight states whose governors chose not to issue stay-at-home orders. As a result, two South Dakota tribes, the Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux Tribes, have taken matters into their own hands when it comes to protecting their members and their land from the deadly virus, setting up checkpoints on roads leading to their reservations. Now, Gov. Kristi Noem is threatening to take legal action against the tribes if they do not remove the checkpoints, continuing her history of antagonizing Native people in her state.
In early April, both tribes set up checkpoints as part of their emergency response to the spread of COVID-19, hoping to keep the virus out of their communities. Both are sovereign nations and the state holds no authority over tribal lands in South Dakota, unless tribes expressly grant it to them; there are nine Native tribes in South Dakota, all of which predate both South Dakota’s statehood and the founding of the United States.
And, the checkpoints seem to be working — while the rest of the states deals with rising numbers of infections, confirmed cases on the reservations are low, with just one on the Cheyenne River reservation and two on Oglala’s Pine Ridge. “As one of our elders said, ‘You don’t lock the door once the wolf is in the room – you lock it before it gets in.’ That’s our philosophy,” Remi Bald Eagle, the intergovernmental affairs coordinator for Cheyenne River, told The Guardian.
Instead of following their lead, Gov. Noem is threatening to sue the tribes. Last Friday, Noem said they would take legal action to force the tribes to take down their checkpoints, in letters issued on her website. Noem gave a 48-hour warning and stated that checkpoints were "interfering with traffic." Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier wrote in a response letter that protecting livelihoods during the pandemic should not be met with threats. “We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” Frazier said. “We invite you to join us in protecting the lives of our people and those that live on this reservation.”
Today I sent letters to two South Dakota tribes asking them to immediately cease interfering with or regulating traffic on US and State Highways and remove all travel checkpoints. (1/3)— Governor Kristi Noem (@govkristinoem) May 8, 2020
Despite initial threats, in a press conference this past Tuesday, Noem's language appeared to soften as she admitted that any intervention would have to be federal. But, this is not the first time the South Dakota governor has created tension with the tribes in her state. She championed a law that sought to target anyone who publicly voiced support for the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, calling them “riot boosters." That law was challenged in court last year and she was forced into a settlement. Her relationship with the tribes is so contentious, in fact, that she is banned from entering Pine Ridge.
The Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux Tribes recognize that Indigenous populations are more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 than many, as is evidenced by what is happening to the Navajo Nation right now, which is being decimated by the virus. The Nation has more cases of COVID-19 than eight states combined. Native folks suffer from health disparities, lack of resources, and high poverty rates that all make them especially susceptible.
“As a member of the Oceti Sakowin, I find it unconscionable that even in the face of imminent death during a earth-shattering pandemic, Noem… appear[s] to be more offended by being told no by tribes—and concerned with asserting colonial dominance—than abiding by treaty law under the Constitution,” Ruth Hopkins writes at The Appeal. “We will not assist the governor in normalizing mass death and using the people of South Dakota as guinea pigs. We are the people of Sitting Bull, Spotted Elk, and Crazy Horse. We were here before European invaders arrived and we fully intend to be here after Western civilization has gone the way of the dinosaur.”