South Dakota Gov’s War on Tribal Sovereignty Is Going to Get People Killed

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem may be a rising star in the Republican Party.  She is also a clear and present danger to the indigenous population in her state.

Excerpted from The New Republic 11.25.2020

The Republican governor has fueled South Dakota’s pandemic spiral, and she’s trying to take tribal nations down with her.

In late September, third-term Rapid City, South Dakota Republican mayor and ex–police chief Steve Allender, making reference to the influx of homeless residents from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, told reporters, “The homeless that are here from out of town should go home immediately.”

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On the same night Camp Mniluzahan went up, Allender had police try to clear it out. The following morning, the mayor held a press conference in which he blew off a little steam. “I swear, every conversation about the homeless in the last month has been peppered with phrases like, ‘stolen land,’ and ‘treaty violations,’ and ‘getting land back,’” Allender said. He went on to accuse the organizers of wanting to “hold the government accountable for something that happened 150 years ago, or 500 years ago.” 

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Photo – Lee Heidhues

There does not exist a descriptor that adequately captures the levels of cruelty and malice required to pursue such policies while South Dakotans die. But, if pressed for one, “fucking insane” seems to do the trick.

South Dakota currently ranks second in the nation for Covid-19 cases, and first in hospitalizations.

On Saturday, the state reported its highest daily death total of the year. Yet, as of writing, Republican Governor Kristi Noem has refused to take action in response to the uncontrolled spread in her state, rejecting measures as simple and effective as a mask mandate. She described her decision to dig in on mass death as a matter of good manners and mutual respect. “If folks want to wear a mask, they are free to do so,” she tweeted at the end of October. “Those who don’t want to wear a mask shouldn’t be shamed into it, and govt should not mandate it. We need to respect each other’s decisions. In SD, we know a little common courtesy can go a long way.”

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Photo – Lee Heidhues

Around the same time, the Indian Health Service’s Great Plains area, consisting of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa, posted its highest-yet increase in Covid-19 cases. Unsurprisingly, while officials like Noem effectively cheered on the death toll, tribal governments and community leaders have taken matters into their own hands, enforcing checkpoints and lockdowns of their own.

This isn’t a power grab by tribes: It’s an act of survival. “The nearest health facility is a three-hour drive in Rapid City, for critical care. And our health facility is basically just—we only have eight beds,” Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier told NPR in May. “There’s only one respiratory therapist. You know, there’s probably about over 10,000 residents here that live on the reservation. So if we were to have a massive outbreak, where are they going to go?”

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As Noem was bragging about getting to breathe on Trump and throwing her support behind a superspreader event in July, Frazier and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe government established checkpoints along roads entering the tribe’s reservation to check incoming vehicles to slow the spread of the virus. The stops were noninvasive and quick-moving, the kind of screening people face when walking into some restaurants and other shops across the country. But Noem fought the checkpoints, claiming that the CRST did not have the jurisdiction to stop traffic.