Tribe sues Trump administration over checkpoint interference

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

Dalton Walker

Updated: White House, Indian Affairs issue statements

Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is suing President Donald Trump and 10 other federal officials, saying they abused their authority and threatened the tribe’s law enforcement funding and coronavirus relief money over its highway checkpoints.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., accuses White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows of “threatening the security” of coronavirus funding recently allocated to the tribe if used for the checkpoints. Meadows made the remark during a June 9 telephone conversation with Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier, according to the suit.

“I would have to look up exactly how much money we sent you but I can tell you that the 8 billion is the largest amount of money ever sent to Native American tribes under any administration, Republican or Democrat, uh, and I’m proud of that, but I also need you to use that money so that it doesn’t create a problem for me on ... other issues because we still have another 40 percent of the money to go out,” Meadows said, according to the complaint.

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A deputy goes over a questionnaire with a motorist at a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe public health checkpoint. (Photo by Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle, West River Eagle)

Meadows is named in the lawsuit, along with Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney and Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Darryl LaCounte.

The White House did not comment directly on the lawsuit, though Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere issued a statement pointing to Abbott testing systems provided to the Indian Health Service, along with federal COVID-19 relief funding.

"President Trump has provided unprecedented support to the American Indian community, including $8 billion to address coronavirus preparedness, response and recovery through the CARES Act," the statement said.

The Cheyenne River Sioux's lawsuit also alleges that on June 12, a Bureau of Indian Affairs Justice Services agent, William McClure, sent 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.”

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)
In this Feb. 28, 2017, photo, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe leaves federal court in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

A statement from Indian Affairs said it has been working with the tribe for several weeks to "address the serious deficiencies within their law enforcement program." 

The agency accuses checkpoint employees of representing themselves as law enforcement and said it "has an obligation to reassume policing functions if the tribe continues to operate its law enforcement program in violation of federal law."

Since early April and as part of its health safety plan, the tribe has maintained nine highway checkpoints on state and federal roads that run through its land in an effort to ward off the pandemic. So far, the tribe has had six positive coronavirus cases, all found by its screening and contract tracing program, which includes the checkpoints, according to a news release issued by the Big Fire Law & Policy Group, a majority Native woman-owned law firm representing the tribe.

“The tribe’s health safety checkpoints are a lawful exercise of our sovereign authority and intended to protect our people from sickness and death. And it’s working,” Nicole Ducheneaux, an attorney for the tribe, said in a statement. Ducheneaux is a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and partner with Big Fire Law & Policy Group.

“The tribe filed this suit because the White House and the BIA are pursuing a political agenda that is not only threatening our lives during this pandemic, but is a gross violation for the United States’ solemn trust duty to the tribe,” Ducheneaux said.

(Related: South Dakota checkpoints: Key events)

Not long after the tribe initiated its checkpoints, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem threatened legal action. She has since repeatedly called on the tribe to remove the checkpoints and in late May asked Trump and other federal officials to get involved. South Dakota’s three Republican congressional delegates also sent a letter to the Interior Department and attorney general on Noem’s behalf.

Frazier said the time was right to file the lawsuit. 

"They are so set on having us remove these checkpoints, they are starting to nitpick at everything we are doing," Frazier said. 

"Our goal is for them to leave us alone, allow us to take care of our people. We know best," he added. 

In his daily COVID-19 address on Wednesday, Frazier was asked if checkpoint staff could be arrested as a result of the lawsuit. He said, “No, I don’t believe so. If they had the legal right to do that they’d come in already.”

Cheyenne River has received $28 million from the CARES Act, which includes both payments. He said the checkpoints were a "big factor" in finding those who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The checkpoints are "still going to be there, no matter what," Frazier said. "They will come down when we think they served their purpose."

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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 lawsuit highlights in detail key interactions, dates and events related to the checkpoints, including Noem’s threat of legal action against the tribe last month if it didn’t remove the checkpoints in 48 hours.

“The tribe will exercise its sovereign authority to the fullest extent to protect its tribal citizens,” Ducheneaux said. “We have faced pandemics, and we have faced fights with the United States before. We know how to fight, and we know to protect ourselves.”

The lawsuit also notes that the Indian Health Service facility in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, has only “eight in-patient beds, six ventilators, two negative pressure rooms, inadequate staff and zero respiratory therapists” to care for the reservation’s 10,000 citizens.

“If more advanced medical intervention is needed for a COVID-19 patient, IHS has indicated that the patient will be transferred to an off-reservation facility, the closest of which is 175 miles (three hours) away.”

Also named in the lawsuit are McClure, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, BIA Deputy Director James D. James, BIA Great Plains Regional Director Tim LaPointe, Deputy Assistant to the President and White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Douglas Hoelscher, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx and Office of Justice Services Deputy Director Charles Addington.

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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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