Sioux tribes in South Dakota are maintaining checkpoints at the borders of their reservations in defiance of US law. They state they are taking these actions in defense of their tribes, and their actions are now likely to trigger legal action. This, in turn, will be a political attack against the Governor, and holds the potential to be a devastating one.
The Oglala Sioux tribe installed their checkpoints in the middle of March, restricting access into or out of the reservation. The Cheyenne River Sioux tribe followed their example on April 2; those checkpoints garnered more attention because they shut down a commonly-traveled federal highway to certain types of travel.
The Cheyenne River Sioux, recognizing the local problems which would stem from completely disallowing others to use the road, have kept the checkpoints clear for South Dakota residents and for interstate commercial drivers; the roads are only actively restricted from non-commercial interstate travel, which has required people driving through the state from West to East (or vice versa) to take alternate, less-direct routes.
The checkpoints are primarily used to restrict reservation members. Tribal members who live on the reservations are not allowed to leave except for necessary medical procedures which are unavailable for local treatment, or for necessary supplies which are not present on the reservation. Anyone leaving must fill out a health questionnaire, and upon return they must fill out another; the tribal leadership hopes this will keep the health issue firmly in mind for their members as they venture off of their lands and also facilitate any necessary contact tracing in the event of a breakout. They maintain that the checkpoints are needed to protect a vulnerable citizenry from the spread of coronavirus.
A secondary use is to monitor traffic into and out of the reservation. The tribes have temporarily disallowed both hunting and camping on their lands in response to the coronavirus outbreak. In-state residents and commercial drivers are questioned as they enter the reservation, and are expected to leave within the span of time normally required to travel the road.
The Republican Governor of South Dakota has resisted most attempts to initiate restrictions in her state. Governor Kristi Noem has demanded the checkpoints be removed. On April 8, the Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a memorandum agreeing that the tribes had the right to close access across their lands during a health crisis such as the covid-19 pandemic, but that they were only allowed to do so following consultation and agreement with the road owners. Noem has taken the position that she has refused to agree to any terms, and therefore the restrictions must be immediately lifted. She sent official letters on Friday requesting that the roads be cleared, and threatening legal action if the restrictions remained in place.
Both tribes have defied the Governor’s demand that the checkpoints be removed.
Noem has been strongly praised by supporters of President Trump for her insistence on keeping the state as open as possible. To this end, she issued a “back to normal plan” on April 28th, encouraging businesses to open with vague guidelines on restrictions (deferring to the individual business owner on specifics) and schools to open on a limited basis.
The state has since seen daily increases of coronavirus cases. The state website prominently displays a downward trend line, but they stopped adding to the charts on the 29th. As reported by the Argus Leader, there were 249 new cases on Saturday alone, more than 100 higher than the highest point shown on the official page’s trend line.
The Governor is in the middle of her term, having won election by three points over her Democrat opponent in 2018. If she presses to have the tribes open at a time when they are working to keep their populaces safe, and her own efforts result in obvious failure and the deaths of hundreds of South Dakota residents, she risks significant damage to the Republican chances for re-election in 2020 and beyond. On the other hand, if she does not press for locals to be able to resume popular activities like hunting on Sioux land or shows a willingness to back down to tribal leaders who say they have science, particularly epidemiology, on their side, she risks significant political blowback from the country’s nationalists.