Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

South Dakota lawmakers have called for formal consultation processes between tribal and state governments over coronavirus checkpoints set up by tribes.

Since April, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribes have maintained highway checkpoints on state and federal roads in an effort to ward off the coronavirus pandemic.

The move hasn't gone over well with South Dakota’s top elected official.

Noem, a Republican, threatened legal action in early May, then asked Trump to intervene.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit in June against the federal government over the issue.

Here's a closer look at events that have unfolded in South Dakota:


April 1: Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier deputizes more than a dozen officers to assist with checkpoints, according to the West River Eagle.

In this Feb. 28, 2017, file photo, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe leaves federal court in Washington. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem appeared headed Monday, May 11, 2020, for a legal confrontation with two Native American Indian tribes over highway checkpoints intended to keep the coronavirus away from their reservations. Both tribes said over the weekend the checkpoints would stand on their reservations. “We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” Frazier said in a statement. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen File)

April 8: The Bureau of Indian Affairs issues a memorandum containing guidance on tribal checkpoints. It says tribes have authority to restrict or close their own roads, but when it comes to state or federal highways, they must consult with those governments.

April 23: Noem sends a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt saying Cheyenne River didn’t consult with the state or seek agreement regarding the checkpoints. She says ranchers and workers have been delayed at the checkpoints, and state employees have been required to get tribal permits to pass.

  • Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner sends Noem a letter urging her to issue a stay-at-home order, suspend evictions and utility shut-offs, and close nonessential businesses, including Keystone XL pipeline construction. South Dakota has been one of a few states to not issue a stay-at-home order.

April 24: Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Darryl LaCounte sends a letter to Frazier asking the tribe to meet with South Dakota officials to “reach a mutually acceptable plan” for the checkpoints.

darryl lacounte

April 26: Frazier responds to LaCounte with a letter saying he had consulted with the state. Frazier writes: “Rather than threaten us for trying to protect all of our reservation’s residents, could the BIA instead deploy its local and regional employees to come help us at the checkpoints or elsewhere on the reservation, protect against the spread of this deadly COVID-19 virus on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation?”

  • Frazier issues a statement on the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ letter regarding the tribe’s public health actions.

(Related story: South Dakota tribes stand firm behind checkpoints)

May 8: Noem sends letters to Frazier and Bear Runner, threatening legal action if the checkpoints are not removed in 48 hours.

In this Jan. 23, 2019, file photo, Gov. Kristi Noem gives her first budget address to lawmakers at the state Capitol in Pierre, S.D. Noem will use her State of the State address to pitch prospective businesses on why they should move to South Dakota, the Republican governor told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/James Nord, File)
  • Frazier responds to Noem with a strongly worded news release, saying the tribe has met the definition of consultation with state and federal agencies and citing the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. “We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” Frazier wrote.
  • Bear Runner responds to Noem with a similar letter, saying the tribe had been in communication with state officials as recently as April 16, and no objection was raised. “Your threats of legal action are not helpful and do not intimidate us,” Bear Runner wrote.
  • In an undated letter to tribal citizens posted on the tribe’s Facebook page, Bear Runner explains Noem’s legal threat and says the tribe is ready to “stand against foreign intrusion.” He adds: “We will not sacrifice our loved ones for their greed."
Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner stands in front of the Capitol during the four-day tribal nations policy summit hosted by the National Congress of American Indians.

May 9: A group of more than a dozen bipartisan state lawmakers writes a letter to Noem, saying the state “has no jurisdiction over the highways running through Indian lands in the state without tribal consent.” The letter also cites the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties. It recommends Noem, legislative leaders and tribal leaders meet to come to a resolution.

May 12: Noem holds off on her threat to sue the tribes, saying instead she would like to work out an agreement. Noem sends Frazier and Bear Runner letters explaining her three-part plan. She seeks to limit checkpoints to BIA and tribal roads.

May 13: Frazier responds to Noem in a brief letter that the tribe would consider her request. He and Bear Runner maintain publicly that their tribes' sovereignty and treaty rights allow them to operate checkpoints anywhere on their land.


May 14: The Pennington County Democratic Party issues a letter of support to Bear Runner and the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

May 19: Frazier appears on Indian Country Today’s broadcast. On Facebook, he shares a brief daily coronavirus-related update that is broadcasted on KIPI-FM 93.5.

  • The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota issues a letter of support to both tribes.

May 20: Noem sends a letter to Trump and other federal officials asking them to get involved. She also dedicates a section of the state’s COVID-19 website to tribal checkpoint information.

(Related story: South Dakota governor calls on Trump in tribal checkpoint feud

May 21: Noem said her stance against tribes operating checkpoints on federal and state highways isn’t just about the response to the pandemic, but about setting precedent on tribes’ ability to shut down traffic in other situations, according to an Associated Press article about the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

May 26: A South Dakota man faces charges for allegedly disregarding instructions after stopping at a Cheyenne River Sioux checkpoint, according to a KELO report. A hearing is set for July 20.

May 27: South Dakota’s three Republican congressional delegates ask Interior Secretary Bernhardt and Attorney General William Barr for guidance on tribal checkpoints. 

(Related story: South Dakota congressmen seek federal guidance on checkpoints) 

June 7: The Interior Department tells the tribe that the BIA is "contemplating emergency reassumption" of the tribe's law enforcement contract on grounds that checkpoint monitors were not properly deputized and were not properly trained, according to lawsuit. The Interior also said it would require unspecified modification of the checkpoints in return for BIA support, including license plate readers, remote monitoring and additional officers. 

June 8: Sweeney sends a letter to the tribe, stating checkpoints on U.S. 212 and SD 63 were a breach of compliance of the tribe's law enforcement contract, according to lawsuit. Sweeney again mentions that the BIA would initiate "emergency reassumption" if checkpoints weren't removed.

Tara Sweeney speaks with Gila River Governor Stephen Roe Lewis and Charlie Addington in Arizona.

June 9: The BIA send staff from the Interior's Office of Justice Services to the tribe's police headquarters to search for deficiencies in the background investigation and basic training for checkpoint monitors, according to lawsuit. The staff was permitted to review law enforcement officers under the tribe's law enforcement contract with the federal government, but not checkpoint monitors who are not employed as part of the contract. 

  • White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows calls Frazier to offer a meeting with Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, to come up with a COVID-19 response plan that would dismantle checkpoints, according to lawsuit. In the call, Meadows said he did not think federal intervention "does the president any good" or is good for the tribe. He asked the tribe to reconsider taking down the checkpoints before situation escalates. 
  • In the same phone call, Frazier says, Meadows threatens the distribution of coronavirus relief money to the tribe if it is used for checkpoints.

June 10: Sweeney sends the tribe a letter accusing it of being out of compliance with its law enforcement contract on "numerous instances" where checkpoint workers presented themselves as tribal police officers, according to lawsuit. In the letter, she gave the tribe about 48 hours to disband the checkpoints to ensure the tribe can continue its current law enforcement contract. The letter also asked the tribe to further consult with the state.

  • In a phone call with the Interior officials, Frazier reiterates that checkpoint employees are not tribal police officers. BIA again accuses checkpoint employees of identifying themselves as law enforcement officers.  

June 11: Frazier sends a letter to Sweeney in response to her compliance letter, clarifying that checkpoint monitors are not deputized as police officers and are not paid under the tribal police contract, according to lawsuit. Frazier said the tribe would remove any patches or badges from checkpoint monitors. Frazier did not agree to dismantle checkpoints or further consult with the state. 

June 12: Bureau of Indian Affairs Justice Services Agent William McClure sends a letter to Frazier “specifically threatening both monetary penalties and forcible dismantling of the Tribe’s law enforcement program if the Tribe failed to comply with corrective action demanded by the government,” according to lawsuit

  • Sweeney's 48-hour deadline expires with no action. 

June 13: Sweeney threatens to take over the tribe's law enforcement contract because of technical non-compliance related to law enforcement human resource files, according to lawsuit

June 15: Frazier and other staff members join a call with Birx, Sweeney and other White House staff. The call included Indian Health Service Director Michael Weahkee and White House Senior Policy Advisor and Tribal Liaison Tyler Fish. Birx recommends the tribe remove checkpoints, according to the lawsuit

June 17: Interior and White House officials contact Frazier to reiterate the government's objection to the checkpoints and to instruct the tribe to take them down for various technological support, according to the lawsuit. The tribe declined, and federal officials "pivoted" to discussion of technical noncompliance contained in law enforcement human resource files. Sweeney instructs BIA staff to provide a compliance project plan and to provide weekly progress reports towards full compliance. 

June 22: Office of Justice Services Deputy Director Charles Addington sends letter to Frazier, demanding that the tribe pull tribal police department staff from service if they had not completed a background check and threatening "immediate emergency reassumption" if it failed to do so within in 24 hours, according to the lawsuit. The tribe says the letter was a surprise considering recent talks with the Interior.

June 23: The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe files lawsuit against the Trump administration over checkpoint interference.

June 24: The Interior Department issues the following statement: 

"The primary focus for Indian Affairs continues to be public safety across Indian Country, including on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. For several weeks, Indian Affairs has been working with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe to address the serious deficiencies within their law enforcement program. It is not in the best interest of the Tribe, State, or Federal government to have individuals falsely representing themselves as law enforcement, as proper training, background investigations and other protocols should be followed to ensure public safety. BIA-OJS has an obligation to reassume policing functions if the Tribe continues to operate its law enforcement program in violation of Federal law.”

June 26: The Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe issue statements in support of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the tribe's lawsuit against the Trump administration. 

July 21: South Dakota lawmakers called for formal consultation processes between tribal and state governments following Gov. Kristi Noem’s handling of a conflict over coronavirus checkpoints set up by tribes. The State-Tribal Relations Committee planned to reach out to Noem again and request her office meet with the committee.

Indian Country Today will continue to follow this story.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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