Cheyenne River Tribe Sues the Federal Government over Roadblocks
Native American tribes have experienced the highest COVID-19 rates in the United States. These tribes are particularly vulnerable to the illness due to the high number of preexisting conditions and poor healthcare on tribal lands. Tribal leadership has tried to be vigilant about protecting tribe members but has been met with a number of obstacles in these efforts. One tactic that tribes have used has been to try to set up roadblocks to keep people from entering the reservations. However, they have been met with resistance as tribes have been ordered to remove these checkpoints. Now, a South Dakota tribe has filed a lawsuit against the state's governor and President Trump after they have not been allowed to use highway checkpoints.
South Dakota's Governor Asked the White House to Get Involed
The Cheyenne River tribe first tried to set up roadblocks in May amid an escalating problem with COVID-19 among tribe members. The first conflict that they had was with Governor Kristi Noem, who ordered these checkpoints removed since they were located on state and federal highways. The tribes that erected the roadblocks refused to move them, resulting in a dispute over the tribes' ability to halt traffic. The governor argued that it was only the state that had the ability to control who was on roadways. She appealed to President Trump to step in, citing the federal government's interest in the free flow of interstate commerce. Before this, the governor threatened her own lawsuit before going to the federal government for help.
The President did get involved in the conflict. The federal government has not taken steps to withhold funding for the tribes that was appropriated in the CARES Act. The federal government has also held up money that was to go to tribal law enforcement, placing these tribes in a bind. The tribes would like to control whether people can enter tribal territory but also needs money from the federal government.
The governor's moves against the roadblocks came after complaints from ranchers who were not allowed to pass through the tribal territory to check on cattle. The tribes had required that travel plans through their territory be submitted to the tribal government for processing. Others in the state claimed that the roadblocks and travel restrictions were hindering deliveries. Some have claimed that the tribal police were acting arbitrarily and were unfairly and inconsistently enforcing their own rules.
The Federal Government Is Allegedly Trying to Punish the Tribe
The governor's efforts sparked a new level of scrutiny by the federal government. Chief of Staff Mark Meadows tried to deescalate the situation, but the tribes still rebuffed the efforts to remove the roadblocks. It was at this time that the government seemingly retaliated against the tribes by directing the Bureau of Indian Affairs to review the background checks of tribal police officers. The BIA claims to have found deficiencies in the background checks and is now trying to hold up government funding of the tribal police. Now, the BIA is trying to replace the tribal police with its own officers. The tribal police provide protection as part of a contract with the BIA, which pays it to provide services. The BIA is attempting to rescind the contract.
Now, the dispute between the Cheyenne River tribe and the federal government has landed in court. The issue here is whether the tribe has sovereignty rights on federal and state highways that pass through its reservations. The tribe claims that various treaties give them the right to set up checkpoints so long as they are on reservation land. The tribe also claims that the federal agencies and the White House have been working in concert to punish the tribe. The government is allegedly acting illegally to coerce the tribe in a manner that jeopardizes tribe members' public safety. The tribe claims that they have the right to control entry, even on state roads, when it threatens their health and welfare.
For their part, the tribe argues that the roadblocks that they have enacted are working. Compared to other Native American tribes, the Cheyenne River tribe has had very few cases of COVID-19 among its members. In fact, the tribe has had only six cases that were detected before the roadblocks were established. Between then and the time of the lawsuit's filing, there were no positive cases in the tribe. There have been no deaths in the tribe due to COVID-19.
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