South Dakota lawmakers criticize Kristi Noem on tribal checkpoints

A caravan of commercial vehicles is waved through a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe checkpoint on May 9. (Photo by Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle, West River Eagle)

The Associated Press

Several tribes have set up checkpoints on roads leading to their reservations in an effort to keep unnecessary visitors away during the pandemic.

Stephen Groves

Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers on Tuesday 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.

Legislators on a committee tasked with navigating the relationship between tribes and the state criticized the governor for escalating the conflict and suggested that an established process for reaching agreements could help avoid future disputes.

The Republican governor and the leaders of several tribes have exchanged legal threats and barbs after Noem threatened to sue tribes in May if they didn’t remove checkpoints on federal and state highways. Several tribes, including the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Rosebud Sioux Tribe, have set up checkpoints on roads leading to their reservations in an effort to keep unnecessary visitors away during the pandemic. Tribal leaders have feared the coronavirus could decimate their members, including many who have health conditions and lack access to a robust health care system.

(Related article: Tribe sues Trump administration over checkpoint interference)

Noem and the tribes differed in their accounts of how the dispute evolved. The governor claimed that her threat of a lawsuit only happened after weeks of behind-the-scenes communication because the tribes had not received permission to set up the road stops on highways that belonged to the federal or state government. They are illegal, she argued. But the tribes countered they had consulted with federal and state authorities and that their position as sovereign nations allowed them to set up the checkpoints.

While Noem backed away from her threat to sue, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe filed its own lawsuit against the federal government over the issue. That lawsuit alleges that federal authorities have tried to coerce and threaten the tribe ever since Noem asked for federal help to end the checkpoints.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.(Photo: sd.gov/governor/)

Republicans and Democrats on the State-Tribal Relations Committee criticized Noem’s communication with tribes and lawmakers on the issue. In the days after Noem threatened to sue the tribes, the lawmakers sent a letter to the governor requesting a conversation on how to handle tribal relationships and offering their help in navigating discussions. But the committee chairman Shawn Bordeaux, a Democrat from Mission, said they never received a response from her office.

“That is so disrespectful,” said state Sen. Lance Russell, a Hot Springs Republican who is a frequent critic of the governor. “I think that is what has driven this whole issue to brinksmanship.”

Lawmakers said they planned to reach out to the governor again and request that her office meet with the committee.

But the governor’s office fired back at the criticism.

“It’s odd to me that a few legislators— those who write laws— are comfortable with some groups picking and choosing which ones to follow,” said Ian Fury, a spokesman for the governor.

He indicated that the governor is sticking to her stance that the checkpoints are illegal and added that Noem’s administration has “spent countless hours working closely with tribes, and that will continue.”

(Related article: South Dakota checkpoints: Timeline of events)

Noem’s Secretary of Tribal Relations Dave Flute, a former chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, distanced himself from Noem’s claim that the checkpoints are illegal. He said he has never called them illegal, adding that some tribes including the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe have not worked with the governor’s office to establish their checkpoint.

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A Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe public health checkpoint. (Photo by Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle, West River Eagle)

The governor seems to favor an informal relationship with tribal leaders, saying repeatedly that they have her cell phone number if there are any issues.

But Rep. Tamara St. John, a Sisseton Republican who is a Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate citizen, said that defined consultation processes would help avoid future conflicts. Tribes have established methods for negotiating with the federal government, but there is no established process with the state, according to St. John. Each tribe has a set of protocols for those consultations.

St. John added that issues from the checkpoints could have been resolved with “some basic, old-fashioned, sit-down talk type of communication.”

Lawmakers have considered inviting tribal leaders to a discussion in Fort Pierre in the coming months.

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