Work with native tribes, not against them

By Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle

Sioux Falls, South Dakota (December 7th, 2020)—South Dakota is once again in the national spotlight for the wrong reason. From Nov. 29-30, MSNBC host Ali Velshi broadcasted his television show “Velshi Across America” from the border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. On Saturday, Mr. Velshi interviewed various Lakota leaders who provided insight on the dire state of Covid-19 within the nine Native American reservations. Appearing on the show were State Senator Red Dawn Foster, Representative Peri Pourier, and Remi Bald Eagle, who shared the struggles tribal nations are facing while protecting their people during this public health crisis.

Native Americans are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus and they also lack adequate healthcare, utilities and telecommunication services. Statewide, indigenous people have been the hardest hit of any ethnic or racial group: while they make up 9 percent of the population, they represent 14 percent of all cases and 15 percent of all deaths. Many reservations have reported Covid-19 deaths within their elderly population, a devastating blow to their culture and society.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Governor Kristi Noem has refused to implement a statewide mask mandate, despite South Dakota having the worst Covid-19 spikes in the nation. Tribal nations have taken action to protect residents and each tribe has implemented unique Covid-19 emergency response plans. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has been operating in a state of emergency since March and has stockpiled meat, deployed its own robust contact-tracing team, and operates public health checkpoints to safeguard people on reservation lands.

The checkpoints have been a major point of contention from the governor and received national media attention. In May, after threatening legal action against the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Governor Noem back-peddled and asked the Trump administration to intervene to allow checkpoints on tribal roads but not state and federal ones within reservations. In response, 17 state legislators sent a bipartisan letter to the governor stating that her administration does not have the authority to enforce SD state law within the boundaries of a sovereign nation. They were critical of the governor’s actions; calling them confrontational, demanding, and causing a constitutional crisis.

Furthermore, they criticized Governor Noem for failing to work with members of the legislature whose districts include tribal people, lands and government. The letter stated, “We could have helped facilitate conversations and given your office unique insight as to the history, culture, protocols, and vernacular of how to work together with Tribal governments. You elected, however, not to contact us and sent an ultimatum to both tribes.”

The legislators also wrote that the State does not have authority to enforce State law within the boundaries of reservations, a point that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has continuously maintained. They cited the 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaties as well as the 1990 8thCircuit Court of Appeals ruling which held that without tribal consent, the State has no jurisdiction over highways running through Indian lands.

Throughout all the hurdles tribal nations have had to face during the pandemic, antagonism and denialism from Governor Noem has been prevalent. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier famously told the governor, “I absolutely agree that we need to work together during this time of crisis, however by continuing to interfere in our efforts to do what science and facts dictate seriously undermine our ability to protect everyone on the reservation… We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death.”

Ali Velshi’s visit to South Dakota shined light on the plight of tribal nations and the battles they must overcome from the governor’s administration. Remi Bald Eagle described the dire situation, “It’s like we’re trapped in a house on fire, and we’re doing our best to put it out. We see the fire trucks coming in the form of a vaccine, and we’re wondering if it will get here in time before the fire burns us to death.”

Last week, Democrats Rep. Pourier and Sen. Foster wrote a compelling letter to the governor imploring her to implement a statewide mask mandate. “As indigenous women, we are writing from the earnest position of granddaughters, sisters, mothers, and the life-givers of our culture and people. It has been ingrained into us that our decisions must take into consideration the care and safety of our communities and our people above our individual selves. It is found in a common idiom across Lakota and Dakota peoples, here written in Lakota: “Hecel Lena Oyate Ki Nipi Kte- So that our people may live,” wrote the congresswomen.  

They continued, “To let any South Dakotan die is a travesty. We should all be united in the goal of any true leader with the people in mind first – in this case our health. There really isn’t a need to battle over statistics and politics right now. This isn’t a political game of playing roulette with our communities or our families. It is an issue of public health that surpasses political parties and hits the core of our humanity.”

Governor Noem’s response was to travel to Texas to attend the National Finals Rodeo, even as the death toll from the pandemic has grown to more than one thousand.

Tribal nations have been exercising their inherent sovereignty and doing everything they can to protect all residents living within the boundaries of their reservations. And all the while, they face combativeness from a governor who continues to refuse to take action and whose indifference has led South Dakota down the path of death and grief.

We enter a holiday season that should be filled with life and giving, but instead it is overshadowed with heartache. The South Dakota Democratic Party asks that the SD Congressional Delegation and Governor Kristi Noem unite, listen to science, and work with our native tribes, not against them. And, that caring individuals walk beside our native brothers and sisters, advocating for and with them at the upcoming state legislative session.

Let us take action now so that South Dakota families can celebrate the next holiday season together with their loved ones. As Lakota leaders know, bold action is needed now to protect all people. Hecel Lena Oyate Ki Nipi Kte, so that our people may live. 

Please direct questions to SDDP Executive Director Pam Cole via email or phone (605) 695-1996.