South Dakota tribes defy governor and maintain checkpoints in coronavirus fight

David K. Li

Two Native American tribes are defying South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem's order to remove roadside checkpoints that tribal leaders claim are necessary to keep the coronavirus from infecting reservations, officials said Monday.

If the Oglala and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes don't take down their checkpoints on state and federal highways, the government in Pierre will take them to court, the governor said.

Delivery personnel, property owners, ranchers and highway maintenance workers are being slowed or turned around, Noem said.

"We need people that are just driving through the area to be able to do so," she told reporters Monday afternoon. "These checkpoints have been an issue allowing these kinds of services to get through."

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There are no plans for state police or other law enforcement action, a spokesman for the governor told NBC News on Monday.

Image: Kristi Noem (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file)
Image: Kristi Noem (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file)

Noem's staff issued memos Friday and Sunday to make it "perfectly clear it is unlawful to interrupt the flow of traffic on these roads," according to the most recent communication.

"The checkpoints on state and U.S. highways are not legal, and if they don't come down, the state will take the matter to federal court," senior adviser and policy director Maggie Seidel wrote Sunday.

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Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier told MSNBC on Sunday that federal-tribal treaties allow the tribe to monitor who comes through reservations and to turn away travelers if they're from areas known to be coronavirus hot spots.

Image: Harold Frazier (Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images file)
Image: Harold Frazier (Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images file)

"We have every legal right to do what we're doing," he said. "We're just doing preventative action. It's nothing to try to hinder people."

Frazier said that with few hospital beds on its reservation, his tribe believes the checkpoints will save lives.

"When we talk about rights, one of the greatest rights is the right to live," he said. "And that's all we're trying to do is to provide that right for our residents on this reservation."

Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner said tribes have been in regular consultation with state authorities, but he insisted that Pierre ultimately has no authority over their actions.

"The Oglala band is ready to stand against foreign intrusions in our daily lives. We have a prior, superior right to make our own laws and be governed by them," Bear Runner said in a video message over the weekend.

"We are not moved by threats when they come from a position of weakness."