/Tribes efforts to keep out coronavirus spark clash with US government – Business Insider

Tribes efforts to keep out coronavirus spark clash with US government – Business Insider


  • South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is embroiled in a lawsuit with the federal government over highway checkpoints it set up around its territory to control spread of the coronavirus.
  • Tribal leaders across the US have looked to the government for help, but resources and funding have at time been delayed or withheld.
  • “In the absence of them actually stepping forward at a time when we need them the most, if they’re going to fail to do that, at least get out of our way,” said the president of the National Congress of American Indians.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.

A Republican governor’s clash with an Indigenous tribe trying to keep the coronavirus off its reservation ignited what some say is the latest example of the federal government failing to support Native American populations.

Since April, no one has been able to get into the Cheyenne River Sioux territory in South Dakota without clearing a highway checkpoint. The tribe set up checkpoints surrounding its 4,200-square-foot territory to keep the coronavirus out of the reservation. 

But in May, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem threatened to sue the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe — another Indigenous group that set up checkpoints around its land — claiming the checkpoints on federal and state highways are illegal. Noem is one of few governors that has resisted a statewide stay-at-home order during the pandemic.

Tribal leaders fear that coronavirus could decimate their populations, given lack of adequate medical facilities nearby and socioeconomic health barriers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indians have infection rates up to 3.5 times higher than other racial groups.

Behind the checkpoint battle is a tribe that acted early and decisively to fight the pandemic on its own, without initial support from the government — a story Indigenous people in the United States say is all too familiar.

“It was clear to me that the United States is not going to be there for us,” said Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians. “And if we don’t do anything to take care of ourselves, nobody else is going to and it’s going to mean people are going to die.”

sioux south dakota tribal

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota set up checkpoints around its territory to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle for Business Insider Today


Days before South Dakota or the White House had declared a state of emergency, the Cheyenne River Sioux were already rolling out safety measures. One of the first things they did was ramp up food distribution to keep people at home. They began stockpiling meat donations from local ranchers, and turned school dorms and motels into quarantine shelters. They also instituted weekly phone calls to check in on at-risk tribal elders.

“We don’t have the resources to go out and construct a facility,” Cheyenne River Sioux chairman Harold Frazier said. “So we try to make do with what we have.”

In March and April the tribe reached out to state and federal agencies for help, but received nothing, according to the chairman. When federal assistance did finally come, it was delayed. The government set aside $8 billion in emergency aid for tribal nations to be delivered within 30 days. But tribes didn’t receive all the funding until two and a half months later in June.

The governor’s office confirmed to Insider that it had received an email from the tribe in April about building a field hospital, but that they had no further communication. 

While tribes waited for federal funding between March and June, reservations across the country struggled to contain the outbreak. More people have died per capita in the Navajo Nation than in any US state. Now the reservation, which spans three Southwestern states, has begun to flatten its curve, but tribal leaders fear for the future.

“The Navajo Nation is in a position of dire need,” Sharp said. “Many of their underlying conditions relate not only to chronic underfunding, but the inability to provide just basic services like running water.” 

With casinos shut down and a delay in federal funds, tribal nations looked outside the government for help. Protect Native Elders is an organization that provides personal protective equipment from DIY 3D makers and other manufacturers to tribes. They raised and distributed over $750,000 of PPE and supplies across 70 tribal communities.

Kristi Noem

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

AP Photo/James Nord


For tribes, coronavirus is just the next chapter in a struggle that has been going on for centuries. 

Since its founding, the United States government has failed to honor treaties and laws that promised support for indigenous people forced off their land. The underfunding continues today as tribal communities are among the most impoverished in the United States. In 2016, the Indian Health Service spent just one-fifth of what Medicare spent per person.

“That’s a direct link as to why we are so vulnerable, why we are disproportionately impacted in every sector — on cardiovascular disease, on diabetes,” Sharp said. “All of these underlying conditions can be directly linked to the failure of the United States to honor its treaties.”

These risk factors, combined with past experience, are why the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe acted early. 

“Ever hear that saying this ain’t our first rodeo?” Frazier said. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve had a lot of disasters, a lot of major storms.” 

But South Dakota’s governor continued to battle with the tribe.

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The tribe views the clash as the latest example of the federal government failing to support Native people.

Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle for Business Insider Today


On May 20, Governor Noem asked President Trump and the federal government for help in ending the checkpoint standoff. South Dakota claims the checkpoints are blocking interstate commerce. But the tribe says it has always let essential services including commercial trucks through.  

When reached for comment on the checkpoints, the governor’s office deferred to the Department of Interior and Department of Justice, arguing it was now a federal matter. Neither department responded to requests for comment.

On June 24 the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe responded with a lawsuit attesting that the federal government has coerced and threatened the tribe in an attempt to have them end the checkpoints. 

“That’s one of their main strategies, you know, we’ll try to take resources away from the tribe that we normally provide based on treaty obligations,” Chairman Frazier said. “And so we just said, enough’s enough.” 

“In the absence of them actually stepping forward at a time when we need them the most, if they’re going to fail to do that, at least get out of our way,” Sharp said. 

According to the chairman, the tribe has always valued the group over the individual, a mentality that continues today and provides an advantage for fighting a pandemic. 

“We’ve learned that all we have is ourselves and we got to just work together and try to do the best we can with what we have,” Frazier said.

Insider reached out to the Department of Interior and Department of Justice but received no response.

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