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South Dakota tribes reject Noem's legal threat over COVID-19 checkpoints: 'We will not apologize for being an island of safety'

The two tribal leaders said the checkpoints were necessary to protect the health and welfare of their tribes, particularly their most vulnerable members. The tribes needed to step up their COVID-19 preventive actions because of Gov. Kristi Noem's inaction, they said.

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Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during a press conference as Sanford Health Executive Vice President Micah Aberson, left, and Dr. Allison Suttle, chief medical officer for Sanford Health announcing the state of South Dakota will be the first state to take part in a medical trial utilizing the drug Hydroxychloroquine to help treat Covid-19 on Monday at the Sanford Health Center in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Two Native American tribes in South Dakota have rejected Gov. Kristi Noem's demand they remove pandemic-related checkpoints on reservation roads within 48 hours or face legal action.

Leaders from the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe issued statements denouncing Noem's ultimatum on Friday, May 8, for them to remove their checkpoints on U.S. and state highways, calling it an insult and out of line with treaty law.

They said the checkpoints were necessary to protect the health and welfare of their tribes, particularly their most vulnerable members. The tribes needed to step up their COVID-19 preventive actions because of Noem's inaction, they said.

"We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death," said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, in his statement posted Friday.

Both tribes have reported only a single known case of COVID-19. The coronavirus has killed three more South Dakotans, raising the statewide death toll to 34 as the state logged its biggest number of daily processed tests, according to the Department of Health Saturday, May 9. There are now 3,393 known cases of COVID-19 in the state.

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Noem's demand followed a Friday letter from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs on the checkpoint issue. A major sticking point was her claim that the tribes set up the checkpoints in early April without consulting with state and local officials and reaching an agreement on what to do.

Both Frazier and Julian Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe disputed that claim, saying they had consulted with state officials about the checkpoints without receiving any objection to their plans.

Bear Runner, in a statement read Saturday on a video broadcast via the tribe's Facebook page , said the tribe had to take reasonable steps to protect its members "due to the lack of judgment and planning of preventative measures" by the state, and he called Noem's legal threat an insult.

“We have not closed any non-tribal roads or highways, and it is not our intent to restrict access to any non-tribal roads or highways," he said.

Both tribes have taken much more significant steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 among their members, compared to Gov. Noem's more hands-off statewide approach, where she's generally called on people and businesses to take personal responsibility for social distancing.

“We demand you to respect our sovereignty. Your threats of legal action is not helpful and do not intimidate us," Bear Runner said. "The only way we can get through this is to work together as a nation.”

Pop-up testing surges test totals

Test results reported by the state have surged in the past two days, the result of drive-through testing this week in Sioux Falls for any employees of the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant and family members.

The plant started re-opening this week after being closed since April 15. Health officials have linked 1,098 COVID-19 diagnoses to an outbreak that spread among the plant's workers, although State Epidemiologist Dr. Joshua Clayton said Friday that 1,034 of those related to the Smithfield outbreak have recovered.

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But that number of cases linked to Smithfield is likely to rise due to the 3,628 tested at the pop-up testing in the parking lot of Washington High School in Sioux Falls, although the state has yet to split out the results.

State officials have logged results of 2,838 tests in the past two days, the largest two-day testing total and a significant jump over the usual daily processing amount. Over the previous 10 days, the state logged an average of 374 test results a day.

The new fatalities were Minnehaha County residents. State officials don't disclose additional specific information, citing privacy concerns. The state's number of COVID-19 deaths have doubled in the last 10 days.

There are 1,234 active COVID-19 cases in South Dakota, and 79 South Dakotans are hospitalized with the illness. The virus has sent 253 state residents to the hospital. State, clinical and private labs have processed 22,952 tests.

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Smithfield foods employees and family members line up to get tested for the coronavirus at a drive-through testing center set up Avera Health and the State of South Dakota at Washington High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on Monday, May 4. (Jeremy Fugleberg/Forum News Service)

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Smithfield foods employees and family members line up to get tested for the coronavirus at a drive-through testing center set up Avera Health and the State of South Dakota at Washington High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on Monday, May 4. (Jeremy Fugleberg/Forum News Service)

Related Topics: HEALTHNEWSMDALL-ACCESS
Jeremy Fugleberg is an editor who manages coverage of health (NewsMD), history and true crime (The Vault) for Forum News Service, the regional wire service of Forum Communications Co, and is a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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