Citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe man a checkpoint on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on May 10, 2020. Photo courtesy Anna Halverson

'I’m protecting my people': Tribal citizens defend coronavirus checkpoints amid threat from state

At a dusty, windy roadblock deep in the heart of the Badlands of South Dakota on Sunday, a 41-year-old Lakota mother of three held her hand high as a car full of tourists pulled up and asked to pass by her.

Beyond the checkpoint lay the Pine Ridge Reservation, the homelands of the Oglala Lakota people, Francisca Tobacco’s people. People she called cousin, mom, dad, grandma, grandpa.

As she approached the car, she asked those inside why they wanted to enter the reservation.

We’re tourists, they said.

She asked them to go around the reservation, suggesting they travel back west and then south through Nebraska. She told them her tribe is trying to protect its people from the spread of COVID-19. They obliged.

“I’m just here for our people,” she told Indianz.Com. “I’m protecting my people.”

Interview with Francisca Tobacco at a Pine Ridge Checkpoint

Thank you for joining us for this live interview with Francisca Tobacco, an Oglala Sioux Tribe citizen who is at a checkpoint near Buffalo Gap, SD.

Posted by Indianz.Com on Sunday, May 10, 2020
Indianz.Com Live with Kevin Abourezk: #Coronavirus Controversy: Francisca Tobacco of Oglala Sioux Tribe

But not everyone believes the tribe has the right to stop traffic leading onto the reservation.

On Friday, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem issued an ultimatum to the leaders of the Oglala and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes of her state: Take down your checkpoints or face legal action.

She gave them 48 hours to do so, a deadline that ended Sunday.

On Saturday, a group of Oglala Lakota veterans and tribal citizens gathered in a community center in Manderson and discussed how to respond to Noem’s ultimatum.

Bryan Brewer, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said the group decided to gather on Mother’s Day at the six checkpoints currently being operated by the tribe on highways leading onto the reservation.

The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council had earlier voted to hire a private security firm to operate those checkpoints, and Brewer said the community members who went to those checkpoints on Sunday weren’t there to interfere with the operation of the checkpoints.

“We’re just here in case the National Guard or someone else comes in,” he told Indianz.Com on Sunday.

Indianz.Com Live with Kevin Abourezk: #Coronavirus Controversy: Bryan Brewer of Oglala Sioux Tribe

Across the Pine Ridge Reservation, rumors spread Sunday that Noem would be sending South Dakota National Guard soldiers to the reservation to tear down the tribe’s checkpoints.

But as of late Sunday night, none had arrived.

Brewer said nearly 50 people gathered at a checkpoint near Batesland, South Dakota, along U.S. Highway 18, including some tribal council members.

One volunteer, Lloyd Elk, said he traveled all the way from Idaho to support his Oglala Lakota people. A U.S. Army veteran, he said his loyalty lies first with his people.

“I’m Lakota first,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe man a checkpoint on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on May 10, 2020. Photo courtesy Tashina Gleska win

Brewer said those gathered at checkpoints across the reservation are willing to take whatever action is necessary to prevent state encroachment on their tribal homelands.

“The last thing that we want is for an armed conflict or anything like that, but we are not going to allow the National Guard to come in and take down our borders or open them up,” he said.

As of Sunday, South Dakota had 3,517 positive cases of coronavirus and has suffered the deaths of 34 people. Many of the positive cases are linked to a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, where an outbreak among workers led to 1,098 cases and two deaths.

Brewer said the tribe’s efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus – including stay-at-home orders and checkpoints at all major entrances onto the reservation – have effectively halted the virus at the reservation’s borders. The tribe has seen just one positive case of coronavirus, a non-tribal member who had traveled to Denver and whom the tribe banished because of concerns that she had violated tribal health measures in leaving and then returning from a place hit hard by the virus.

“We don’t have any cases here. Yet she wants to open it up,” Brewer said of Noem. “I can’t figure out why she wants to endanger all of us. We are citizens of the state of South Dakota. Yet we are treated this way even though we are living on our own land, a sovereign nation.”

Bryan Brewer is seen at one of the coronavirus checkpoints on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on May 10, 2020. Photo courtesy Bryan Brewer

He said he fears the coronavirus will infect vast swaths of the Oglala Lakota population if it gains a foothold on the reservation because of cramped living conditions – many homes have multiple families living in them – and severe underlying health conditions experienced by many tribal members that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

“If it does come here, it will spread so fast,” he said. “This is why we cannot let it in. We have to keep our reservation safe.”

Nearly 220 miles north of Batesland in Eagle Butte, on the Cheyenne River Reservation, Chairman Harold Frazier also stood his ground Sunday.

He said the state of South Dakota has no authority to control travel on state highways that pass through the Cheyenne River Reservation. Only the tribe has that right, Frazier told Indianz.Com.

“This is our land,” he said. “We have jurisdiction. We have authority to do this.”

Indianz.Com Live with Kevin Abourezk: #Coronavirus Controversy: Chairman Harold Frazier of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

A group of South Dakota legislators expressed support Sunday for tribal leaders’ efforts to stop state encroachment on their lands.

In a bipartisan letter signed by 17 South Dakota congressmen, the legislators criticized Noem for acting confrontationally and causing a constitutional crisis in her efforts to enforce state law within the boundaries of a reservation.

They questioned the governor’s statement that tribes don’t have authority to establish checkpoints within their homelands, citing the 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie treaties and a 1990 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that held that the state of South Dakota has no jurisdiction over the highways running through tribal lands.

“We do not wish to be party of another lawsuit that will ultimately cost the people of South Dakota more money,” the legislators wrote. “We wish to work with all parties involved for a reasonable, legal, and appropriate solution that addresses the concerns of all sovereigns involved.”

But Frazier said he has no desire to negotiate with Noem over the issue of tribal checkpoints.

“These checkpoints are not going to come down, no matter what they say,” he said. “We’re not causing any harm. We’re not doing anything detrimental. We’re trying to save lives.”

He said his tribe is ready to take any action necessary to stop the state from shutting down its checkpoints – which he considers bulwarks against the onslaught of a global pandemic. And he said he wouldn’t tolerate the presence of National Guard soldiers on the reservation.

“If they do enter and make them kind of attempts, we will arrest them,” he said. “I think it’s highly unlikely that they would attempt it.”

He said the tribe is allowing most traffic through the reservation, including commercial traffic and area residents seeking to pass through, but checkpoint personnel have been turning away travelers coming from areas that have been hit hard by the coronavirus.

Facing disproportionate rates of diabetes, obesity, lung disease and heart disease, the Cheyenne River people are especially susceptible to the coronavirus, and Frazier said his best tool is prevention.

“If it ever got here, it would just spread like wildfire,” he said. “It would be something that would be really devastating to our people and to all the residents on this reservation.”

Many miles to the south, deep in the heart of the Badlands, Francisco Tobacco said she plans to return to the checkpoint near Buffalo Gap on Monday.

On Sunday, she manned the checkpoint alone, though a tribal officer attempted to convince her to leave her post, fearing a frustrated driver might hurt her or her children. She said stopping travelers who might spread the coronavirus to her people was worth the risk.

“This is our land and this is our territory and we have the right to protect our own land,” she said.

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