South Dakota will take Native American tribes to court over coronavirus checkpoints

South Dakota will take Native American tribes to court over coronavirus checkpoints
© Greg Nash

South Dakota Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemHouse passes 8B defense policy bill South Dakota governor proposes spending B on infrastructure, state employee raises Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill MORE (R) on Tuesday said that she will follow through with her promise to take Native American tribes to court over their coronavirus checkpoints. 

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe have set up checkpoints into their reservations to monitor highway traffic and contain the spread of COVID-19 after detecting their first case last month. Noem said that the checkpoints have hampered the state’s response to the pandemic. 

"We do have people that have been going to these areas that have been involved in essential services that have not been allowed to go forward,” Noem said. “We have people who live in tribal areas, and also have property there such as cattle or ranches, and they're not allowed to go there and check on their property or to do normal day-to-day business.”


On Friday the governor sent letters to both tribes giving them a 48-hour deadline to remove the checkpoints, which they rejected. 

“We have an inherent and sovereign right to protect the health of our people, and no one, man or woman, can dispute that right,” Julian Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said in a video posted to Facebook over the weekend.

Both tribes have issued lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and curfews, while Noem has taken a more relaxed approach across the state. Native Americans have shown to be one of the demographics disproportionately impacted by the virus: the Navajo Nation, for example, which consists of about 170,000 people, has more coronavirus cases per capita than any state in the U.S. with about 1,786 cases per 100,000 people. 

In April, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs warned that tribes could not put up checkpoints unless they consulted the state, which Noem has indicated is not the case. 

On Sunday a group of bipartisan state lawmakers told Noem that her “statement that Tribal governments do not possess the ability to establish checkpoints within the boundaries of their homelands is not accurate,” which the tribes have also insisted. 

"We do not wish to be party to another lawsuit that will ultimately cost the people of South Dakota more money," the legislators added.