Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Native American tribes in South Dakota have vowed to keep operating checkpoints to protect their people from the coronavirus, despite threats of legal action from the Republican state governor.
Related: Navajo nation reels under weight of coronavirus – and history of broken promises
The Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux tribes installed multiple checkpoints on roads leading to their reservations in early April, as part of each sovereign nation’s comprehensive emergency response to minimize the spread of Covid-19.
They say restricting non-essential visitors and monitoring who comes in and out of their territory will aid contact tracing, and are essential tools in the fight against the global pandemic.
Tribal leaders in South Dakota are concerned about potentially devastating Covid-19 outbreaks like the one unfolding in the Navajo nation, where deep-seated structural, economic and health injustices have enabled coronavirus to spread widely and hampered efforts to curtail it.
So far, the number of confirmed cases remains low: one on the Cheyenne River reservation and two on Oglala’s Pine Ridge.
Yet last Friday, Governor Kristi Noem threatened to sue the tribes. “If the checkpoints are not removed within the next 48 hours, the state will take necessary legal action,” she wrote.
Today I sent letters to two South Dakota tribes asking them to immediately cease interfering with or regulating traffic on US and State Highways and remove all travel checkpoints. (1/3)
— Governor Kristi Noem (@govkristinoem) May 8, 2020
Noem, a staunch Trump ally, claimed that the tribes had broken the law by failing to consult authorities before imposing traffic restrictions on state and federal roads.
The tribes responded defiantly, arguing they had every right to implement measures on roads in tribal territory, no matter who built them, in order to protect the lives of their people.
“The checkpoints are part of a robust system to identify, isolate and track individuals, and make sure they are cared for properly. We are not restricting agriculture, commerce or residents, they are free to come and go,” said Remi Bald Eagle, the intergovernmental affairs coordinator for Cheyenne River.
“This is part of our holistic plan to make sure our members are protected … because we didn’t see a plan from the state.”
Noem is among eight governors who refused to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, claiming such edicts reflected “herd mentality” and it was down to individuals to decide whether “to exercise their right to work, to worship and to play. Or to even stay at home.”
Infections are on the rise in the state, with 3,663 confirmed cases including at least 39 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the New York Times database.
The governor’s threat evoked painful memories of previous US intervention at Pine Ridge during the 1970s, according to Chase Iron Eyes, spokesman for Oglala tribal chair, Julian Bear Runner. In 1973 federal agencies, including the FBI, were involved in an armed standoff with members of the American Indian Movement on the reservation.
On Sunday, hundreds of members of an Oglala warrior society gathered on the reservation borders amid fears state authorities would attempt to forcibly shut down the checkpoints, which are manned 24 hours a day by a private security firm.
“They think they can come in and do what they did in the 1970s … disturb our peace, security and safety, but this is a different generation and the state has poked a sleeping bear,” said Iron Eyes.
“This is a very scary time and Covid-19, like climate change and extractivism, poses an immediate threat to our survival and we’ll respond to protect our people.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Noem appeared to backtrack, acknowledging that any legal action must be federal.
This was followed by a second, less combative letter – sent only to Harold Frazier, chairman of Cheyenne River, again requesting that checkpoints on state and federal highways be immediately removed, but with no mention of legal action.
The governor’s spokesman declined to comment.
For now, the 24/7 checkpoints continue, with tourists and hunters among the few non-essential travelers being turned away.
Bald Eagle added: “As one of our elders said, ‘You don’t lock the door once the wolf is in the room – you lock it before it gets in.’ That’s our philosophy.”