SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – A battle is brewing between a pair of South Dakota Indian tribes and the governor’s office over checkpoints set up on the reservations restricting travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Kristi Noem sent letters Friday to leaders of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe demanding that checkpoints that have been set up on those reservations along state and U.S. highways be removed immediately.
If the checkpoints are not removed within the next 48 hours, the governor will pursue legal action against the tribes, the governor’s office said in a news release Friday.
“We are strongest when we work together; this includes our battle against COVID-19,” the governor said in a statement sent to media Friday afternoon. “I request that the tribes immediately cease interfering with or regulating traffic on US and State Highways and remove all travel checkpoints.”
Last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a memorandum regarding tribal government authority to close or restrict travel on state and U.S. highways, calling on tribes to get permission from state authorities before closing or restricting travel.
The tribes have taken action because they are concerned the virus could overwhelm fragile health care systems that serve many people with underlying health problems. They are still allowing essential businesses on to the reservations and said the checkpoints were set up to keep out tourists or other visitors who could be carrying coronavirus infections.
Tribal chairman Harold Frazier issued a statement addressing Noem, saying, “You continuing to interfere in our efforts to do what science and facts dictate seriously undermine our ability to protect everyone on the reservation.”
Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner, said he expected the tribe to defend its rights as a sovereign nation to keep out threats to their health.
“We’d be interested in talking face to face with Governor Noem and the attorney general and whoever else is involved,” he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press