Oglala spokesman: Noem is putting lives at risk in checkpoint dispute

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Gov. Kristi Noem is putting 72,000 Native Americans’ lives at risk in her dispute over checkpoints on reservations, an Oglala Sioux Tribe spokesman said Wednesday night.

Native American communities are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and the tribe needs to take matters into its own hands, said Chase Iron Eyes, spokesman for Oglala President Julian Bear Runner. 

“The governor is missing an opportunity to set a positive example of executive leadership. The world desperately needs vision right now among elected officials,” Iron Eyes said in a statement. “Why not help us instead of harassing us?”

Iron Eyes said Noem’s decision to “escalate the tension” doesn’t make sense for public health. The Oglala tribe is screening people at the checkpoints based on medical experts’ advice about the coronavirus and isn’t preventing travel. Iron Eyes said 99.9% of drivers are allowed to pass through the checkpoints after answering a few questions.

Neither Cheyenne River Chairman Harold Frazier or Bear Runner have commented on Noem’s announcement on Wednesday that she submitted videos and affidavits to the U.S. Department of Justice and the White House of the tribes’ “unlawful checkpoints.” She wrote in her letter to the White House that she wouldn’t making the evidence publicly available because it’s an ongoing investigation.

More: Noem: Evidence on ‘unlawful’ tribal checkpoints turned over to federal government

Frazier’s spokesman Remi Bald Eagle told Indian County Today that they’ll wait to see what the federal government does, and the tribe plans to continue its checkpoints. Bald Eagle said the tribe was still considering Noem’s proposed plan to remove checkpoints from state and federal highways and allow them on Bureau of Indian Affairs roads when she made the announcement on Wednesday. 

“Next thing you know, she runs off and does something like this, so it’s a little confusing,” Bald Eagle told Indian Country Today.

The Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux tribes set up the checkpoints in April as part of their coronavirus response, out of concern that cases could overwhelm their health care facilities. The Oglala has four ventilators for more than 46,000 enrolled tribal members on its reservation, according to Bear Runner. Cheyenne River has eight hospital beds, six ventilators and no ICU for 12,000 residents on its reservation, according to Bald Eagle.

More: How a S.D. Native American tribe is protecting its people from COVID-19

How we got here

The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a memo in April notifying tribes that they could post checkpoints on tribe-owned roads, but need an agreement with a road’s owner for checkpoints on non-tribal roads.

Noem announced on Wednesday that she directed South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to investigate the checkpoints after the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux tribes didn’t remove their checkpoints on state and federal highways through the reservation within Noem’s 48-hour deadline. She said she decided to invoke a deadline after weeks of trying to discuss the checkpoints with the tribes to resolve the issue.

After the deadline passed, Noem sent letters to tribal leadership proposing a plan that would remove checkpoints from state and federal highways and keep them on BIA roads. She said on Tuesday that she hadn’t heard a formal answer from the tribes on her plan. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota supported the tribes’ checkpoints on Monday, saying tribal sovereignty allows the tribes to operate the checkpoints on the reservations. 

State and federal highways are under federal jurisdiction and in light of questions about tribal sovereignty, Noem posted on the state’s COVID-19 website documents dating back to the 1950s on Wednesday giving the state easements for four highways on the reservations.

Seventeen legislators, many with reservations in their districts, sent a letter to Noem earlier this month asking her to work with the tribes rather than take legal action against them.

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