South Dakota’s Tribes Defend Themselves Against the Pandemic

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As COVID-19 numberssoared across the country this spring, tribal nations began closing their reservation boundaries to non-residents. The Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux erected checkpoints on roads entering their reservations in order to protect their citizens, even as the state of South Dakota refused to require masks or mandate social distance. By early May, South Dakota Gov. Kirsti Noem explicitly told the tribes to remove their checkpoints or face the consequences.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier declined, saying that doing so would “seriously undermine our ability to protect everyone on the reservation.” But Noem persisted. Throughout the pandemic, the governor has relied on voluntary measures, dismissed epidemiological studies, and eschewed lockdowns in favor of business. Now, tribes say Noem has set herself against the safety of people on tribal lands by opposing their Covid-19 checkpoints.

Cultural Survival, a leading Indigenous rights organization, says this kind of behavior — strong-arming Indigenous nations into removing pandemic protections — is not uncommon among repressive governments that oppose Indigenous human rights. The group, which advocates for tribal communities’ self-determination, has found dozens of pandemic-related human rights violations against Indigenous peoples in North America, including four in the Western United States. In June, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe filed a complaint against the federal government, alleging that forcing tribes to shut down Covid-19 checkpoints would undermine tribal sovereignty and the people’s health and well-being.

“National governments don’t accept that Indigenous peoples are independent. We have autonomy,” said Bian’ni Madsa’ Juárez López (Mixe and Zapotec), who tracks human rights violations against Indigenous peoples for Cultural Survival. “Communities can decide what to do with their land and what actions to take.”

Tribal nations, whose citizens have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, have often maintained strict Covid-19 measures, including lockdowns, for protection, while non-Native governments in the U.S. and beyond have been loosening their public health orders. Cultural Survival began tracking the spread of the virus in Indigenous communities and monitoring resulting human rights violations after realizing that Indigenous peoples were being excluded from Covid-19 data and government public health responses. They have documented how Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro — who denies the dangers of Covid-19 — continues to ignore illegal mining and logging in Amazonian Indigenous territories, as well as the pandemic threat. In Mexico, a municipality in Chiapas closed off a neighboring city’s access to food and medical facilities in late April. When Indigenous peoples protested, police and vigilantes shot and detained Ch’ol protestors, accusing them of carrying Covid-19.

In North America, Cultural Survival has documented and mapped 27 human rights violations against Indigenous peoples. In the Western U.S., both the Navajo Nation and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon already face long-term water crises, a critical issue during a pandemic in which hand-washing is one of the few effective defenses. Indigenous immigrants in California allege discrimination by state and federal agencies, citing language barriers and their exclusion from health care access. This isn’t an exhaustive list of all Indigenous human rights violations; Juárez López expects to be mapping abuses and Covid-19 for months to come.

“National governments don’t accept that Indigenous peoples are independent. We have autonomy,” said Juárez López.

Since May, Gov. Noem has continued to take a heavy-handed, anti-Indigenous position, threatening to pull essential Covid-19 relief aid and end law enforcement contracts — even asking President Donald Trump for federal intervention to end “these unlawful tribal checkpoints/blockades.” New Covid-19 cases in the state began climbing in August and peaked in the beginning of September, according to state data compiled by The New York Times. As of Sept. 21, CDC data shows South Dakota’s infection rate surpassing California and New York. Cases fell in May for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, but began rising again in August. “We did curtail the spread,” said John Mousseau (Oglala Sioux), who manages the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s checkpoints through his private security company, Canksa’ Yuha.

The Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux have maintained their tribal checkpoints, guarding against the virus while waiting for a court date. After speaking with High Country News, Cultural Survival added South Dakota’s opposition to the Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux tribes’ Covid-19 checkpoints to its map of Indigenous human rights violations.

“Governments are not really doing much to try to reduce the spread of the virus,” said Juárez López. “Indigenous peoples are really being affected. It’s important that they take action, because no one is going to do that for them.”

Kalen Goodluck is a contributing editor at High Country News.

This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on October 2, 2020.