U.S. News

South Dakota governor threatens tribes with legal action on checkpoints

(Reuters) - South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem on Monday threatened to take legal action against two Native American tribes who have set up vehicle checkpoints in an attempt to contain the coronavirus that has impacted other Native American reservations.

The Republican said during a news conference that she will seek legal clarity in a lawsuit against the nine checkpoints set up by the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes that she claims have restricted the travel of essential services.

“I certainly understand the spirit behind (the checkpoints),” the first-term governor said. “It’s a priority that we make sure that if somebody needs an ambulance on a reservation, one could get to them. I am not sure of that today.”

Noem, a Republican, was among the few U.S. governors who did not issue stay-at-home orders.

It is unclear where or when a lawsuit will be filed. A spokesman with the state attorney general’s office was not immediately available for comment.

On Friday, Noem gave the tribes 48 hours to remove the checkpoints.

“Her threats don’t intimidate us. We have to do what we have to do to safeguard and protect our communities,” Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner told Reuters, adding that his reservation of 30,000 people has reported one case.

Leaders of both tribes say the checkpoints along federal and state highways and local roads are legal, given that they are within reservation boundaries and as a result, fall under sovereign law.

Tribal leaders said they will do everything in their power to keep the pandemic off their reservations, given that minority and impoverished communities have been hit hard across the U.S. by the virus and that many of their tribe members suffer from underlying medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

“Bottom line, it would decimate us,” said Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe intergovernmental affairs official Remi Bald Eagle, noting that the closest critical care unit is three hours from the reservation of 13,000 members.

Motorists who are driving onto the Sioux Tribe reservation are being stopped and asked who they are, where they have been and where they are going, Bald Eagle told Reuters.

“This is a real-time strategy to identify, isolate, quarantine and treat people who may get infected,” he said, adding that the reservation has reported only one case.

At the Oglala Sioux Tribe checkpoints, workers collect vehicle information from motorists, while informing them of the reservation’s curfew, shelter-in-place order and sovereign laws, said Bear Runner, the Oglala Sioux president.

“It’s a threat to our existence and a threat to our history,” he said.

Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Aurora Ellis