SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday held off on her threat to sue Native American tribes that have set up highway checkpoints intended to keep the coronavirus away from their reservations, saying instead she would like to work out an agreement.
The Republican governor gave two tribes — the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe — 48 hours from Friday afternoon to remove checkpoints from state and federal highways or face a lawsuit. She said her office has been getting complaints that the checkpoints have caused a headache for people trying to enter the reservations for ranching or store deliveries. But the tribes kept the checkpoints, citing the threat of the virus, combined with their vulnerable populations and poor medical facilities, as urgent reasons to control access.
Noem said she sent a letter Tuesday to Cheyenne River Sioux chairman Harold Frazier asking him to talk through an agreement on the checkpoints on the Cheyenne River Indian reservation in the northern part of the state. She said she planned a similar letter to Oglala Sioux president Julian Bear Runner on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in the southwest corner of the state.
She described the conflict as a “sticky situation” between federal, state and tribal authorities.
“What we're looking for is clarification,” Noem said.
In the letter, released by Noem's office Tuesday evening, she calls the checkpoints on state highways “unlawful” and writes they “could actually increase the risk of spreading the virus on the reservation” via tribal interaction with travelers. She asked Frazier to “immediately adjust your policies” to drop the state highway checkpoints.
The tribes have taken a vigilant approach to the global pandemic, at times locking down their reservations, while Noem's strategy has been mostly hands-off in an effort to keep businesses afloat.
Amid fears that Native Americans could be particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic, tribes across the country have taken an aggressive approach to preventing infections by sealing borders and mandating testing. Frazier has said the Cheyenne River Sioux were worried their eight-bed hospital facility could easily be overrun.
So far, there have been only three cases confirmed between both reservations. But after two Oglala Sioux members were confirmed to have the coronavirus on Monday, the Pine Ridge reservation went into a 72-hour lockdown with only emergency travel allowed.
Meanwhile, South Dakota officials reported that COVID-19 deaths rose by five Tuesday, to 39. Forty-nine new cases were reported, bringing the state’s total to 3,663.
Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for the Oglala Sioux president, said his office would carefully consider a request from the governor to discuss the checkpoints, but that he had not yet received a letter or notification from the governor. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Noem's letter.
Noem said Monday she had been talking to the tribes for weeks trying to resolve the checkpoints, and on Tuesday brought her tribal relations secretary, David Flute, to her regular briefing to detail those efforts. Flute, a former chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, said that he had tried to reach out to both tribes last month to work out some of the complaints that state was getting with the checkpoints. Flute said that elected leaders from both tribes turned down his requests to have a conference call.
Noem's relationship with some of the tribes has been tense since she took office in 2018, mostly over a longstanding conflict about construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Noem defended her approach to relations with the tribes, saying she has sought to open up lines of communication. But when asked by reporters whether she would proceed with the lawsuit if she can't reach an agreement with the tribes, she said, “I’m not certain about that question.”