SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said on Thursday that her stance against Native American tribes operating coronavirus checkpoints on federal and state highways isn't just about the response to the coronavirus pandemic, but about setting "precedent" on tribes' ability to shut down traffic in other situations.
Noem threatened to sue the tribes two weeks ago, but then backed away from that plan and instead appealed to President Donald Trump to settle the issue this week. She said she is investigating all tribes that have set up checkpoints on federal and state highways. Three tribes — the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe — have set up the checkpoints to keep unnecessary visitors from the reservation who might be carrying coronavirus infections.
"If we allow checkpoints to shut down traffic in this situation, then we are setting precedent for that to happen far into the future," Noem said.
As construction related to the Keystone XL pipeline begins in South Dakota, the checkpoints add tension to an already-rocky relationship between the Republican governor and tribes that have been outspoken opponents of the pipeline. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, which has set up coronavirus checkpoints, does not allow vehicles from oil companies to pass through their land. The proposed pipeline route skirts tribal land, but construction companies could use the highways for transporting supplies.
Since Noem threatened to sue, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe also set up coronavirus checkpoints after an increase in coronavirus infections on its reservation.
Noem maintained that she did not regret threatening to take the tribes to court and said it was important to settle who had jurisdiction over highways stretching across reservations. She pointed to easements that allowed federal and state governments to build and maintain highways on tribal land.
The governor argued she has been a proponent for the tribes in a host of other areas, saying "we work together very well on 99% of issues."
But Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for the Oglala Sioux Tribe president, called Noem's decision to investigate the checkpoints an escalation of the feud.
"We're permitting people to pass through our reservations," he said in a statement. "We're screening people, according to the best advice from medical experts, not preventing travel."
The tribes say their focus is on keeping people safe during the pandemic and that their rights as a sovereign nation allow them to set up the checkpoints to protect people's health.
"It's disappointing that they're not respecting what we do," said Cheyenne River Sioux chairman Harold Frazier. "We value life over anything else."
Many Native American tribes in the state have taken a more vigilant approach to the coronavirus pandemic. There have been 324 confirmed cases among Native Americans in the state, according to the Department of Health.
Health officials also reported two more COVID-19 deaths and 73 new confirmed coronavirus cases statewide on Thursday. The new figures bring the state's death toll to 48 and its confirmed case count to 4,250. State officials have said the total count does not reflect the total number of infections because many people may not display symptoms or have not sought testing if their symptoms are mild.
The economic fallout from the global pandemic has continued to cause layoffs in the state, according to the Department of Labor and Regulation. State officials reported that 3,806 people made new claims for unemployment last week.