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Stalemate Remains Between Governor, Tribes Over Checkpoints

Lee Strubinger

Two Native American tribes in South Dakota continue to defy an order from the governor to remove several travel checkpoints on state and U.S. Highways.

The tribes say the checkpoints will help track COVID-19 if it starts to spread.

Republican Governor Kristi Noem says the state will take legal action.

One of the checkpoints is on U.S. Highway 212 at the boundary of the Cheyenne River Reservation. Four deputized officers wear face masks and yellow vests.

There’s a stop sign, and cones set up in each of the highway’s two lanes.

The officers stop vehicles and ask drivers for their name, phone number and where they’re traveling to and from.

After about a minute’s worth of questions, vehicles pass through.

The state and federal government say tribes don’t have the authority to do that on state and federal highways. The Oglala Sioux Tribe has similar checkpoints.

Harold Frazier is Cheyenne River’s tribal chairman.

Both Frazier and leaders on Pine Ridge say their checkpoints are designed to aid in coronavirus contact tracing.

“I believe that’s going to help us contain it a lot easier than if—what we see called community spread where no body knows where it’s come from, et cetera. I feel we have to try something to assist us and try to keep it as minimal as possible. We feel this is a good mechanism to do that.”

State officials disagree.

Governor Kristi Noem says her office has received complaints. While the governor will not provide details of any incidents, Noem says ranchers in the area and the state Department of Transportation tell her people are being turned away at checkpoints.

“For me, it’s a priority that we make sure that if someone needs an ambulance on a reservation one can get to them,” Noem says. “I’m not sure of that with the checkpoints operating the way that they are.”

Chairman Frazier denies the governor’s claim and says she should visit a checkpoint and see for herself.

In the 1990’s a federal appeals court found that - without tribal consent - the state has no jurisdiction over highways running through “Indian lands.”

Frazier says if the state had the legal authority to remove the checkpoints it would have done so already.

Late last month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said the tribes had to consult with state before setting up checkpoints.

A month ago, Governor Noem said the state had been working closely with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe to allow essential travel and first responders into the reservation.

Now, the state says there was no consultation or agreement.

“There’s all kinds of ironies in this whole deal," Democratic state Senator Troy Heinert says.

He’s Sicangu Lakota and his district includes the Rosebud reservation. He’s also the minority leader in the state house. He’s one of four Native lawmakers—along with statehouse democrats—who asked that Governor Noem include to help facilitate communications between the state and tribes.

“We know what smallpox in a blanket did to Native communities. We know what the Spanish flu did to communities. We know what tuberculosis did. So, that is all relevant and factual," Heinert says. "Those kinds of histories--those things are still raw in a lot of people’s minds. Knowing that should be taken into account when you’re going to work with tribes on an issue such as this.”

Noem’s relationship with tribes in the state is already on shakey ground. Last year, the Oglala Sioux Tribe banned the governor from Pine Ridge after an unannounced visit to the reservation to view flood damage. The ban was a response to Noem’s support for bills aimed at pipeline demonstrators

Heinert says in the instance of checkpoints, the state is not recognizing the inherent right of tribal sovereignty handed down by treaties, Ccongress and the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The other irony is, for numerous years you had to have a permit—if you were Indian you had to have a permit to leave the reservation. No body every complained about that, when it was Indians who had to have the permit," Heinert adds. "Now, once tribal governments are starting to exercise their sovereignty, then all of the sudden it’s a huge issue.”

Governor Kristi Noem says the state will file a federal lawsuit against the tribes. She has not offered a timeframe for such a move, but says she hopes it will bring clarification over who has jurisdiction on roads in the reservations.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.