Coronavirus: South Dakota tribes reject governor's request to remove checkpoints

Leaders say they are not preventing commerce or blocking state activities

Gino Spocchia
Monday 11 May 2020 14:37 BST
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South Dakota tribe leader rejects governor's call to remove coronavirus checkpoints

Two tribal leaders in South Dakota have denounced the state governor’s demand they disassemble checkpoints designed to stop coronavirus spreading through native American lands.

The heads of the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes issued separate statements over the weekend that criticised South Dakota governor Kristi Noem’s ultimatum.

The leaders, who have defended their rights to protect their own people during the coronavirus pandemic, said that Ms Noem’s actions ignored health concerns.

Both tribes were served with a two-day warning on Friday to take down checkpoints that have been screening for Covid-19 on state and US highways entering their territories, or face legal action.

“We have an inherent and sovereign right to protect the health of our people, and no one, man or woman, can dispute that right,” said Julian Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, in a Facebook video on Saturday.

Criticising the Republican governor’s call to start reopening South Dakota businesses, the Oglala president said Ms Noem had miscalculated his dedication to the health of his people.

“Governor Noem miscalculates our level of dedication to protect our most vulnerable people from crony capitalism thrust to force us to open our economy as they chose to do so”, Mr Bear Runner said.

“We must adopt serious measures to proactively deal with the serious public health crisis. We demand you to respect our sovereignty,” continued Mr Bear Runner. “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.”

Ms Noem alleged on Friday that neither Mr Bear Runner or his counterpart Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, had agreed with her office about the checkpoints constructed last month.

According to the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs in April, tribes must consult and come to an agreement with the state of South Dakota before closing or restricting travel on state or US Highways.

Mr Frazier said in a statement that he “absolutely” agreed with the “need to work together during this time of crisis”, adding that his actions were to “save lives rather than save face”.

He added that the governor, in “continuing to interfere in our efforts to do what science and facts dictate” was undermining “our ability to protect everyone on the reservation”.

“Ignorant statements and fiery rhetoric encourage individuals already under stress from this situation to carry out irrational actions,” said Mr Frazier.

The Cheyenne River tribe argued on Friday that checkpoints had not stopped state or commercial functions, as Ms Noem had claimed.

Mr Bear Runner also said in his statement that his tribe was “in full compliance” with the April memo, as it “has not closed non-travel roads or highways owned by the state of South Dakota or any other government”.

Mr Frazier added: “We will not apologise for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death”.

In comments made to CNN afterwards, Frazier said that his main concern was preventing people travelling from Covid-19 “hotspots” into tribal lands.

“With the lack of resources we have medically, this is our best tool we have right now to try to prevent [the spread of Covid-19],” Mr Frazier told the broadcaster.

Mr Frazier added that the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe was not equipped for any medical emergency, with only one eight-bed facility on the reservation and no intensive care unit for around 12,000 people.

Mr Bear Runner said on Saturday that the federal government had meanwhile provided only four ventilators to serve the Oglala tribe’s population of more than 46,000 members.

There are thought to be almost 170 cases of Covid-19 among Native Americans in the state of South Dakota as of Friday, CNN reported.

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