News & Politics

South Dakota Governor Threatens Legal Action Over Checkpoints by Sioux Tribes on Highways

South Dakota Governor Threatens Legal Action Over Checkpoints by Sioux Tribes on Highways
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has warned two tribes of Sioux that she will take “necessary” legal action if the tribes don’t remove checkpoints from state and U.S. highways.

The Sioux believe they have a sovereign right to protect their reservations and everyone on it. The governor doesn’t disagree but says setting up checkpoints on non-tribal lands is illegal.

Fox News:

“The State of South Dakota objects to tribal checkpoints on US and State highways regardless of whether those checkpoints take into consideration the safety measures recommended by” the South Dakota Department of Transportation, Noem wrote in letters to leaders of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

“Safety recommendations do not constitute consultation and they certainly do not equal agreement,” Noem added.

There has been growing friction between the tribes and Noem, a Republican who was sworn in in January. The flashpoint, as it has been for years, is the Keystone XL Pipeline and the fear by the tribes that it would be an environmental catastrophe. Noem is a big supporter of the pipeline and is supporting bills recently passed by the legislature that would make “anyone convicted for felony riot or encouraging it will now be faced with civil penalties in addition to criminal prosecution.”

The tribes see this as stifling dissent.

The Ogala Sioux have banned Noem from the reservation and several tribes have requested their flags be removed from flying over the state capitol. So this latest dust-up over the checkpoints is a continuation of a political feud between the state and the Sioux tribes.

Both tribes have been allowing non-resident access to the reservations for essential business only — with everyone required to fill out a health questionnaire.

Passing through the checkpoints takes “less than a minute,” Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier told Time magazine.

But Noem doesn’t care about the inconvenience.

Noem cited an April memo from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs in her letters that says tribes must enter into an agreement with the state government before restricting travel on U.S. highways.

“We are strongest when we work together; this includes our battle against COVID-19,” the governor said in a news release. “I request that the tribes immediately cease interfering with or regulating traffic on US and State Highways and remove all travel checkpoints.”

Tribal leader Frazier’s response did nothing to bring the two sides together.

“I absolutely agree that we need to work together during this time of crisis,” Frazier wrote, “however you continuing to interfere in our efforts to do what science and facts dictate seriously undermine our ability to protect everyone on the reservation.

“The virus does not differentiate between members and non-members,” he added. “It obligates us to protect everyone on the reservation regardless of political distinctions. We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death.”

I don’t believe there is any “science” that tells us we should set up traffic checkpoints, nor are there any “facts” that would lead anyone to believe it would do any good anyway.

But it’s a great Democratic Party talking point.

Another tribal leader accused Noem of “threatening the sovereign interest” of tribes.

Noem “threatened the sovereign interest of the Oglala people when she issued an ultimatum,” Bear Runner said on Facebook on Saturday, according to Time. “We have a prior and superior right to make our own laws and be governed by them.”

It’s a sticky situation that could escalate if Noem presses her legal claim. That’s why she’s likely to back down and seek some sort of compromise.