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Secretary of Tribal Relations Says Meth is the Biggest Issue, Not COVID


Native Americans in South Dakota are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. But the state Secretary of Tribal Relations says the virus is NOT the biggest healthcare issue tribes are facing.

Secretary David Flute is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and is part of Governor Kristi Noem’s administration. He told the Sioux Falls Downtown Rotary Club that his office has received complaints from tribal citizens about lockdowns and checkpoints related to the pandemic.  He says the methamphetamine problem is the biggest healthcare crisis tribal nations in the state are facing.  

“It doesn’t make sense to me as a former chairman, that when we have a drug problem, you won’t set up check points to check people coming into the reservation for drugs. And that’s what’s really hurting our Indian people today. The pandemic? We’re gonna get over this.” 

Former Secretary of Tribal Relations J.R. LaPlante is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. He now serves as Director of Tribal Relations for Avera Health. He says reservation communities have had to refer COVID patients to larger health systems as infection rates increase.  

“I’ve heard that they have even referred patients as far as Denver, Colorado because we just don’t have the beds.” 

Native Americans account for about nine percent of the state’s population.  Department of Health data shows they account for 20% of the state’s total COVID hospitalizations since March. It’s unclear if that includes out of state transfers.  LaPlante says tribes are well aware of the threat meth poses to their communities. 

“It doesn’t take away from the fact that COVID is a clear and immanent danger to the health and welfare and livelihood and lives of tribal members.” 

Both LaPlante and Secretary Flute agree that tribes have the legal right to enact their own laws and ordinances related to the pandemic.  

-Contact SDPB reporter Jackie Hendry by email.

Jackie is based out of SDPB's Sioux Falls Studio.