Noem pushes federal legal action for travel checkpoints on reservations

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (By Gov. Kristi Noem is threatening to take two South Dakota Native American tribes to federal court over checkpoints set up on reservations restricting state and U.S. highway travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement comes after Noem sent letters to leaders of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe on Friday demanding that checkpoints set up on those reservations along state and U.S. highways be removed immediately.

The governor gave a 48-hour deadline Friday before she said she would pursue legal action.

Maggie Seidel, Noem’s senior advisor and policy director, elaborated on the letters in an email on Sunday, saying that the state needs unobstructed access to state and U.S. highways for traffic, property owners, state personnel and essential deliveries, such as food supplies.

“The safety of all South Dakotans is paramount — that encompasses the public health as well as the public safety side of things,” Seidel said in the email. “The checkpoints on state and U.S. 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.”

Last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a memorandum regarding tribal government authority to close or restrict travel on state and U.S. Highways, calling on tribes to get permission from state authorities before closing or restricting travel.

The tribes have taken action because they are concerned the virus could overwhelm fragile health care systems that serve many people with underlying health problems. They are still allowing essential businesses onto the reservations and said the checkpoints were set up to keep out tourists or other visitors who could be carrying coronavirus infections.

Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner addressed Noem’s letters on Saturday saying that her decision “threatened the sovereign interest of the Oglala people.”

“Due to the lack of judgment in planning of preventative measures in response to the current pandemic, COVID-19, the Oglala Sioux Tribe has adopted reasonable and necessary measures to protect the health and safety of our tribal members and our other residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” Bear Runner said in the video.

Tribal chairman Harold Frazier also issued a statement Friday addressing Noem, saying, “You continuing to interfere in our efforts to do what science and facts dictate seriously undermine our ability to protect everyone on the reservation.”