Story at a glance

  • South Dakota has one of the highest rates of positivity and deaths per capita in the U.S.
  • Despite the severity of the outbreak, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) has remained steadfast in her decision not to impose statewide mask mandates, lockdowns and the restrictions of businesses and other venues.
  • The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Noem are at odds over checkpoints the tribe put in place in an effort to contain the virus.

Tensions are rising between Native American tribes in South Dakota and the state’s governor over the handling of the coronavirus outbreak. 

South Dakota has one of the highest rates of positivity and deaths per capita in the U.S. Earlier this month, the state of nearly 885,000 residents reported a record high of more than 2,000 new cases in a single day. South Dakota has reported 71,170 cases and 849 deaths over the course of the pandemic. 


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Despite the severity of the outbreak, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) has remained steadfast in her decision not to impose statewide mask mandates, lockdowns and the restrictions of businesses and other venues. 

“Unfortunately, the spread of #COVID-19 is rising in nearly every state, regardless of if they have mask mandates in place. Here in South Dakota, we’re focusing on solutions that DO good, not on responses that FEEL good,” Noem said last week. 

Noem’s approach is at odds with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. 

Earlier in the pandemic when South Dakota had very few cases, the tribe implemented checkpoints on roads going through the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation as part of a contact tracing program as well as to limit nonessential drivers coming onto the land. 

Tribal officials also put a mask mandate in place over the summer and rolled out testing events. 

Following the record number of new infections this month, a 10-day lockdown of Eagle Butte, where the tribe’s headquarters are located, went into effect on Monday. 

Tribal members, however, worry the lack of response by state officials to tackle the outbreak is undermining their attempts to curb the spread of the virus. 

“It’s like we’re trapped in a house on fire, and we’re doing our best to put it out,” Remi Bald Eagle, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe spokesperson, told NBC News

“We see the firetrucks coming in the form of a vaccine, and we're wondering if it will get here in time before the fire burns us to death.” 

The Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation has reported more than 1,000 cases along with 13 deaths since the pandemic began. While Native Americans in South Dakota make up only 9 percent of the state’s population, they make up 14 percent of all cases and 15 percent of all deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

“Some of those who died were our elders,” Bald Eagle told NBC News. “They’re some of our magnificent treasures. When they die, they take with them some of our language and our culture and our heritage, and we won’t get that back.” 

The governor has also taken issue with the tribe’s checkpoints. Noem in May asked the Trump administration to step in to allow only checkpoints on tribal roads, but not state or federal roads located within reservation boundaries. 

The tribe filed a lawsuit against the federal government in June, accusing the Trump administration of abusing its power by putting pressure on the tribe to put an end to the checkpoints. The lawsuit is ongoing, and the tribe plans to respond in the coming days to the Trump administration’s request to dismiss the case, NBC News reports. 


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Published on Nov 25, 2020