SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The head of a Native American tribe said Wednesday it won’t comply with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s demand to remove coronavirus checkpoints it set up on federal and state highways that run through its reservation.
Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told Noem in a short letter that the tribe would consider her request to restrict checkpoints to tribal roads. But he made it clear to The Associated Press that he believes the tribe’s sovereignty allows it to operate checkpoints anywhere on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, which is in northern South Dakota. The checkpoints are essential to protecting the health of the people on the reservation, he said.
“This is our home and this is our land,” Frazier said. “One does not come into somebody’s house and tell them how to live.”
The Republican governor demanded that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe remove the checkpoints from federal and state highways, calling them illegal. The tribes began monitoring their borders last month in an effort to stop unnecessary visitors who could be carrying the coronavirus.
Noem on Friday threatened to sue the tribes if they didn’t disassemble the road checks. But this week, she tried a different tack, offering to meet if they would consider limiting the checkpoints only to tribal roads.
She is also appealing to the federal government to back her up, telling the South Dakota Broadcasters Association, “The authority on U.S. highways and state highways lies with the federal government and that they need to take enforcement actions in those cases if the law’s not being upheld.”
Noem’s spokesman, Ian Fury, said Wednesday that her office would respond to Frazier’s letter “at the appropriate time.”
The governor said Tuesday that she planned to send a similar letter to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The tribe did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Noem’s actions. The governor said her administration has received complaints about the checkpoints and they have caused problems for people who are trying to access the reservation for reasons such as ranching or store deliveries.
Frazier asked the governor to forward any complaints her office receives to the tribe, but he said she is exaggerating the problem. He said he has visited some of the nine checkpoints the tribe set up and it takes less than two minutes for drivers to pass through them. Ambulances would also be allowed through without having to stop, he said.
The tribes have criticized the governor for not issuing sweeping stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Amid concerns that Native Americans could be particularly vulnerable to the disease, tribes across the country have monitored their borders and mandated testing for all members.
Frazier said mass-testing is the kind of help he would welcome from the state, but right now the tribe only has 18 test kits, sparking concerns that the virus could already be spreading undetected on the reservation.