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Terry Anderson
Dominic Parker

With more than 8 million residents, it is no surprise that New York City has the highest cumulative number of COVID-19 cases, but, with a reservation population of 175,000 and 3,632 confirmed infections, the per capita infection rate on the sparsely populated Navajo Nation surpasses New York City and is among the highest in the world.

The number of deaths on the reservation is higher than some states with more than 15 times the population and is 10 times more than the neighboring state of Arizona.

Similarly, in sparsely populated Wyoming, Native Americans are disproportionally represented. In early May they made up a staggering 22 percent of Wyoming’s confirmed COVID-19 cases, yet Native Americans account for less than three percent of the state’s population.

One might think that the sparse, isolated population of Native Americans on reservations would protect tribal citizens, but history teaches otherwise. Like the coronavirus migrating from China, smallpox migrated from Europe to North America and killed an estimated 20 million Natives. They had no herd immunity and no ability to halt the spread of the virus.

Today several tribes are actively trying to halt the spread of the coronavirus by discouraging visitation to reservations. When Navajo tribal citizens began testing positive for COVID-19 in mid-March, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said he didn’t have the authority to “put roadblocks up,” but he did close all tourism locations, tribal parks and casinos on the Navajo Nation. "What are our visitors going to come and see if our tourist attractions are closed and our points of interest are closed?"

Other Indigenous people are taking a more active approach by monitoring and limiting access to their lands. Recently, two South Dakota tribes, the Oglala Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux, set up checkpoints on state and U.S. highways to halt spread of the virus. Several Canadian First Nations joined other northern communities to establish the Northwest Incident Command Center and set up checkpoints. In New Zealand, roadblocks set up by Maori, the indigenous people, prompted the headline,” “Anarchy or Lifesavers: Face-to-Face at the COVID Roadblocks.”

Because the coronavirus knows no political boundaries, shelter-in-place orders, mandatory quarantines, curfews, and checkpoints have raised questions about which governments—tribal, local, state, or federal—have the authority to control spread of the virus.

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When President Trump tweeted that the authority to open up the states rested with the president, state governors stood him down. Governor Cuomo responded, “If he says to me, ‘I declare it open,’ and that is a public health risk or it's reckless with the welfare of the people of my state, I will oppose it."

Now South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) has asserted her state’s sovereignty over the Sioux tribes by requiring them to remove their checkpoints or face legal action. The tribes are standing down the governor.

Julian Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, countered, “We must adopt serious measures to proactively deal with the serious public health crisis. We demand you to respect our sovereignty.”

The flipside of closures is openings. Despite statewide stay-at-home orders, some tribes in Washington and Idaho are opening their casinos because, as Washington Governor Jay Islee, admits, the state “does not have jurisdiction over sovereign tribes,” when it comes to casino operations.

Not surprisingly, tribes are opening their casinos because they have bills to pay and employees and tribal members to support, and they are doing it safely. David Bean, chairman of the Puyallup tribal council explains that they are doing so “with the same thought and consideration for the overall health and welfare of our community, which includes our employees and customers and neighbors from all directions when we closed,”

The dispute between tribes and states over sovereignty harkens back to the 1830s when the U.S. Supreme Court declared tribes to be “domestic dependent nations,” creating a relationship like that of “a ward to its guardian.”

As Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez asserted, “We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We're going to help each other out.” Tribal responses to the coronavirus show that they need no guardian. They can protect the health of tribal citizens and the health of their economies.

Terry Anderson is the John & Jean DeNault Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Dominic Parker is an Associate Professor of Agriculture and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin.