A standoff between South Dakota's Republican governor Kristi Noem and the leader of two Native American tribes over the tribe's setting up coronavirus checkpoints at the borders of their lands has become a contentious battle over the limits of tribal sovereignty.
Despite the damage that the coronavirus has done to South Dakota, governor Noem has never enacted a stay-at-home order. She has stated that her priority is getting the economy going, leading her to ignore local officials requests for shelter in place orders around a meat processing facility that saw a massive outbreak of 1000 people. This has left many communities exposed to danger, which lead to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe setting up quarantine checkpoints on their land. The governer has threated to sue the leaders of both tribes for interfering with traffic. On Monday, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe released a press statement saying that there were no plans to dismantle the road blocks.
"Since she won't protect tribal health and safety, tribes have no choice but to take matters into their own hands," said Julian Bear Runner, the tribe's president, in the release.
Many of the tribal communities don't have adequate medical facilities to fight back against a potential outbreak. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has eight hospital beds and the nearest intensive care facility available is three hours away. "All we're doing is trying to save people's lives," Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier said in an interview with CNN.
"All we have is prevention," he said. "Because if we ever get the virus spread throughout our reservation, we don't have the resources, the medical resources, to try to address it."
Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner said in a Facebook Live video that the governor's actions "threat the sovereign interest of the Oglala people."
"Gov. 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," Bear Runner said. "There is no way to place a value on what we have to lose if we let them insult us this way... Right now, they are trying to divide us, as they always have."
Speaking to Democracy Now, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier stated the realities of the situation:
Well, we have eight hospital beds. We don’t have no ICU. There are six ventilators. We have one respiratory therapist. And I’m being told by our medical people that generally they monitor two to three ventilators, and they could do four, but that’s pushing it. The nearest facility for critical care is in Rapid City, and it’s about a three-hour drive just to get to Rapid. And that has always been the practice of the Indian Health Service, is to get the care that some of our people need, they generally get referred out.
But when we started this, we started looking at numbers and the number of residents. And when we broke it down, that maybe 50% would possibly get the virus. And when we — they were saying that 80% can be handled at home, and that left 20%. And we looked at the numbers, and we realized that there is a potential that we may need 1,200 beds. And when we only have eight, I mean, that really woke up a lot of people here at home.
Governor Noem's background has always been strongly attached to agriculture. Her family owned a farm and ranch and she's always made arguments that agricultural efforts were a national security issue, as she didn't want another country "to produce our food for us because then they control us." This was why she resisted requests for shelter-in-place orders around the meatpacking facilities that had seen the majority of coronavirus cases. Noem has stated that the tribes must "immediately cease interfering or regulating traffic"on US and State Highways and remove all travel checkpoints."
Maggie Seidel, Noem's senior adviser and policy director, stressed in a Sunday memo to reporters that "tribes are well within their rights to manage the flow of traffic on tribal roads, and the state has no objection to that."
"The key here is that tribes are letting tribal members come and go as they please -- the same is not true for non-tribal members," Seidel said, an assertion disputed by the tribes.