South Dakota governor asks Trump for help in roadblock dispute with tribes

The governor of South Dakota has reached out to President Donald Trump in the ongoing standoff with two Native American tribes that have set up vehicle checkpoints on federal and state highways to prevent the spread of coronavirus on their land.

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem sent a four-page letter to the president Wednesday, seeking help in resolving the dispute.

The Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes put the checkpoints in place in April and have resisted the governor’s orders to remove them. The state insists the checkpoints are illegal and argues the tribes did not consult or reach agreement with the governor before going forward with the roadblocks, as required by law.

“This is not taking sides,” Noem said at a news briefing Wednesday. “This is simply upholding the law.”

Noem said she sent affidavits and video of the checkpoints to the White House, Justice Department, Interior Department and the state’s congressional delegation, according to several news reports.

About two weeks ago, Noem threatened to take the tribes to federal court  if they did not remove the checkpoints on roads that pass through reservations within 48 hours.

“The checkpoints on state and US highways are not legal, and if they don’t come down, the state will take the matter to federal court, as Governor Noem noted in her Friday letter,” Noem’s senior adviser and policy director, Maggie Seidel, wrote in an email to the local Argus Leader newspaper on May 10.

But last week, Noem backed down from taking the tribes to court, instead choosing to negotiate on the issue if the tribes were willing to come to the table.

Neither tribe has budged in the interim, arguing that their self-implemented restrictions are the only way they have to keep the virus from exploding in their communities.

“We want to ensure that people coming from ‘hot spots’ or highly infected areas, we ask them to go around our land,” Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier told CNN on May 11.

Last week, Frazier wrote to Noem, saying his tribe would consider her request, but he also told The Associated Press he believes the tribe’s sovereignty allows it to operate checkpoints anywhere on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, in northern South Dakota.

Tribal leaders fear their limited facilities would become quickly overwhelmed in an outbreak, with the closest intensive care unit about three hours away.

Unequipped to deal with a large number of cases, tribes turned to cutting tourism as a first line of defense against the virus.

The tribes are only allowing vehicles to pass through the reservations for essential business, and that access is granted only if the vehicle has not traveled recently from a hot spot of the outbreak. Drivers are also required to complete a health questionnaire. Some cars have been turned away.

Besides the checkpoints, both tribes have also issued strict stay-at-home orders and curfews for their communities.