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Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

South Dakota’s governor has asked President Donald Trump and other federal officials to get involved with tribal checkpoints on Lakota land.

Gov. Kristi Noem said Wednesday she provided affidavits from an investigation by the state attorney general, along with video of the checkpoints, to the White House, Justice Department, Interior Department and the state’s congressional delegation. Noem sent a four-page letter dated May 20 addressed to Trump.

“This, however, is not simply a matter between a sovereign state and sovereign tribal government,” the letter said. “Rather, the federal government has an interest in interstate commerce, transportation of critical infrastructure goods, provision of services from critical infrastructure industries, and the uniform treatment of all travelers on a non-discriminatory basis.”

Noem, a Republican, said the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe have continued to maintain the checkpoints despite weeks of attempts by state officials to find a solution that would respect tribal sovereignty and state and federal law.

Her latest move comes less than two weeks after she threatened legal action against the tribes. Both tribes have set up checkpoints on federal and state highways that run through their reservations in an effort to keep the new coronavirus away from tribal land, and both have cited sovereignty and treaty rights.

Remi Bald Eagle, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe spokesman, said because the letter wasn’t addressed to the tribe, the tribe will “just have to wait and see what the feds do.” He added that the tribe has had past conversations with federal officials.

“We are going to continue to do our checkpoints until they’re no longer a necessary part of our emergency response plan,” he said.

Bald Eagle said the tribe was looking at the feasibility of a three-part plan Noem introduced to it earlier this month.

“We were working on that, and we told her that we would,” Bald Eagle said. “Next thing you know, she runs off and does something like this, so it’s a little confusing.” 

The Oglala Sioux Tribe did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday. 

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)

The tribes have two of South Dakota’s larger reservations, with tribal land larger than some states. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier has noted the health care system on his reservation has only eight hospital beds and six ventilators, and said the infection could “spread like wildfire” if the tribe doesn't remain vigilant.

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

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Out of the 4,177 positive cases reported in South Dakota as of May 20, 310 are Native American, according to the state health agency. Oglala Lakota County, home of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, has reported 14 positive cases and one recovered case. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe sits in Dewey and Zeibach counties, and both combine to have a single positive case. 

Noem dedicated a section of the state’s COVID-19 website to tribal checkpoint information that includes her letters and links to highway easements.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers wrote a letter addressed to Noem, saying the state “has no jurisdiction over the highways running through Indian lands in the state without tribal consent,” citing the 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaties.

The Pennington County Democratic Party in South Dakota wrote a letter of support on May 14 to Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner.

A third South Dakota tribe, the Rosebud Sioux, said last week it set up similar checkpoints on tribal roads. Noem didn’t mention them Wednesday in her daily briefing. 

Todd County, where Rosebud is located, has reported 17 positive cases and seven recovered cases.

Tribes across Indian Country have set up checkpoints, including in Arizona and New Mexico, two places hit hard by the coronavirus.

(Related coverage: Chairman Harold Frazier talks checkpoints with Indian Country Today)

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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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This story has been updated to add comment and additional details on the checkpoints.