A road on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota has been closed for more than two years following damage that has yet to be repaired by the federal government. Photo: Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

Native Sun News Today: BIA steps on tribal sovereignty

EAGLE BUTTE -- Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chair Harold Frazier answered a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs challenge to the tribe’s Covid-19 highway checkpoints with an April 30 challenge of his own.

In a missive to Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Darryl LaCounte, Frazier penned the latest chapter in a month-long spat that the checkpoints sparked between the two over the BIA’s federal trust responsibility to native nations and its intromission in sovereign tribal decisions.

It all started in early April when the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (CRST) set up traffic checkpoints on U.S. Highway 212, on the east and west borders of the reservation, in an attempt to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in tribal jurisdiction.

Several weeks later, LaCounte issued a letter to Frazier, warning that the tribe “cannot legally close or restrict travel on U.S. 212 without first consulting with the state…”

The federal appointed official wrote that if South Dakota had not agreed to the checkpoints, CRST may be in violation of U.S. law and that failure to “immediately reopen the highway for motorists” may have “serious consequences”. He did not explain what those consequences would be. 

In a strongly worded response letter, Frazier immediately told LaCounte that he was “making erroneous assumptions based on a lack of correct information” and that the tribe in fact hadn’t closed any roads.

“We are simply regulating travelers’ entry onto the reservation in an attempt to prevent, reduce, and track the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus here on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation,” wrote Frazier. 

Many tribes feel the need to take more aggressive measures than states to protect tribal members and residents, as the novel coronavirus has disproportionately affected some Native American communities across the country. This may be especially true for the nine reservations in South Dakota, which is one of only five states that have not issued a shelter-in-place order.

Frazier told LaCounte the tribe has “hundreds of roads that are in dismal condition on our reservation. They are not maintained properly by the BIA.... So why is the BIA suddenly concerned about a supposed state road that happens to run through our reservation?” he chided.

“The roads you should be concerned about are BIA routes on our reservation, not a supposed state highway.”

Frazier also wrote that the BIA’s claims that CRST had not consulted with South Dakota about the checkpoints was false. 

“The state has indeed been consulted. Gov. Kristi Noem and I have had text and voice conversations since the beginning of the Covid-19 public health crisis…. Additionally, we sought -- and received -- assistance and input from the South Dakota Department of Transportation in setting up the checkpoints.” 

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