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Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

Two Lakota tribes in South Dakota working to protect citizens from the new coronavirus could potentially be in a legal fight with the state’s top elected official over road access.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe put up highway checkpoints in April as part of an effort to keep the coronavirus away from tribal land. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has publicly criticized the move, got the Bureau of Indian Affairs involved and most recently, threatened legal action against both tribes if the checkpoints didn’t come down on her timeline.

Noem wrote a letter Friday to Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier and Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner that was posted on the government website.

At issue are the checkpoints on tribal land that cover U.S. and state highways that run through the reservations. The checkpoints remained Monday, a day after the 48-hour timeline ordered by the Republican governor expired. The tribes said they’ll keep them up until they deem it safe to remove them.

“We invite you to join us in protecting the lives of our people and those that live on this reservation,” Frazier said in a statement aimed at Noem. “I regretfully decline your request. I stand with our elder Councilman Ed Widow and the purpose of our actions is to, ‘save lives rather than save face’.”

“We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death.”

Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner said in a statement that Noem’s letter was the first time he heard of an objection from the state. Bear Runner said he received the letter via news reports and social media, not from Noem’s Office.

“We must adopt serious measures to proactively deal with this serious public health crisis,” he said. “We demand you respect our sovereignty. Your threats of legal action are not helpful and do not intimidate us. The only way we can get through this is to work together as a nation.”

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.

On Monday, Oglala Sioux Tribe officials confirmed two positive coronavirus cases in the Wounded Knee District of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The tribe has implemented a reservation-wide 72-hour lock down effective immediately.

Noem addressed the media on Monday during a roughly 30-minute news conference where the majority of the questions asked were related to the checkpoints.

“The checkpoints, I certainly understand the spirit behind them and if communicated that if they wanted to do that type of activity on BIA roads, it would be less of a jurisdictional issue,” Noem said. “On U.S. and state highways, it's different and we need to have clarity on that situation. For me, it’s a priority that we make sure that if somebody needs an ambulance on a reservation one can get to them, and I’m not sure of that today with these checkpoints operating the way that they are.”

The governor also said she’s been getting complaints from travelers, businesses, ranchers and state agencies that they’re having difficulty passing the checkpoints.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

Tribal officials say emergency personnel like an ambulance shouldn’t have any issue accessing either reservation. Essential traffic through the highways is allowed.

Noem was asked about a potential lawsuit, but didn’t give an update Monday.

A group of more than a dozen bipartisan state lawmakers wrote a letter on Saturday 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 letter recommended Noem, legislative leaders and leaders from both tribes to meet to come to a resolution.

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“We have met with our attorneys, and they are aware,” Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe spokesman Remi Bald Eagle said Monday morning before Noem’s news conference. “If there is any action, they’ll get in there and get the job done.”

South Dakota has been one of the few states to not issue a stay-at-home directive to counter the coronavirus spread. As of Monday, 3,614 people in South Dakota have tested positive and 34 people have died, according to the state Department of Health. Almost 3,000 of the cases have been reported in Minnehaha County, where the state’s largest city, Sioux Falls, is located. Sioux Falls had seen a coronavirus spike recently at a meat packing facility. The numbers don’t appear to include the new Oglala cases.

Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge have two of South Dakota’s larger reservations, with tribal land larger than some states. As of Monday, both tribes have felt only minimal effects from the coronavirus as each have placed strict directives in place like curfews and stay-at-home requirements.

Frazier has described a health care system on his reservation with eight hospital beds and six ventilators, saying the infection could “spread like wildfire” if the tribe isn’t vigilant.

Tribes across Indian Country have set up checkpoints, including in Arizona and New Mexico, two places hit hard by the coronavirus. Some Alaska tribes have enacted travel restrictions to remote villages, some only accessible via air or water. Those have caused no major issues.

On his Facebook page, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., praised Frazier’s leadership. “Osda (good)! Another tribe standing strong for public health in a sea of resistance.”

Karen Eagle, Oglala Sioux Tribe media relation specialist, said the tribe has received an outpouring of support from Indian Country and beyond.

“One message that I would really like to get out there is that the tribe just appreciates all of the support and the understanding of so many people that this is actually a sovereignty issue, this is a treaty issue,” Eagle said. “This goes to the very core of our existence as a tribal nation, that we have this inherent right to protect, not only our lands and our waters but the health and wellbeing of our own people,”

The Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Chairman Donovan White and Lower Brule Chairman Boyd Gourneau voiced public support for Cheyenne River and Oglala.

“All of our Seven Council Fires stand in unity with Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux Tribes,” White said. “The governor should work with her state legislators, work with the tribal chairmen, and councils, acknowledge the sovereign authority of the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux tribes and come up with a reasonable plan to assist them in protecting public safety and health of our Native people.”

Gourneau said Lower Brule has checkpoints on BIA roads to stop non-tribal-citizens’ access to tribal land and to popular water access to the Missouri River.

“We stand with our brothers. We must band together,” Gourneau said.

(More information: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus -- Data, story summaries, lists of closures, resources)

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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

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