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Kristi Noem’s War on Tribal Sovereignty Is Going to Get People Killed

The Republican governor has fueled South Dakota’s pandemic spiral, and she’s trying to take tribal nations down with her.

Icon Sportswire/AP Images

South Dakota currently ranks second in the nation for Covid-19 cases, and first in hospitalizations. On Saturday, the state reported its highest daily death total of the year. Yet, as of writing, Republican Governor Kristi Noem has refused to take action in response to the uncontrolled spread in her state, rejecting measures as simple and effective as a mask mandate. She described her decision to dig in on mass death as a matter of good manners and mutual respect. “If folks want to wear a mask, they are free to do so,” she tweeted at the end of October. “Those who don’t want to wear a mask shouldn’t be shamed into it, and govt should not mandate it. We need to respect each other’s decisions. In SD, we know a little common courtesy can go a long way.”

Around the same time, the Indian Health Service’s Great Plains area, consisting of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa, posted its highest-yet increase in Covid-19 cases. Unsurprisingly, while officials like Noem effectively cheered on the death toll, tribal governments and community leaders have taken matters into their own hands, enforcing checkpoints and lockdowns of their own. This isn’t a power grab by tribes: It’s an act of survival. “The nearest health facility is a three-hour drive in Rapid City, for critical care. And our health facility is basically just—we only have eight beds,” Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier told NPR in May. “There’s only one respiratory therapist. You know, there’s probably about over 10,000 residents here that live on the reservation. So if we were to have a massive outbreak, where are they going to go?” 

But as the tribes have moved to shield themselves against the irresponsibility of state and local governance, they have been met with outright hostility from leaders like Noem. Hear that again—elected officials in South Dakota, operating out of a desire to make tribal communities effectively submissive to local and state governance, are working against their Native counterparts, who are actively trying to save lives in the middle of a pandemic. There does not exist a descriptor that adequately captures the levels of cruelty and malice required to pursue such policies while South Dakotans die. But, if pressed for one, “fucking insane” seems to do the trick. 

Two recent clashes in the state, over matters of sovereignty and Native civic rights, played all the familiar beats, while offering a reminder that not even a once-in-a-generation pandemic can interrupt colonization. As Noem was bragging about getting to breathe on Trump and throwing her support behind a superspreader event in July, Frazier and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe government established checkpoints along roads entering the tribe’s reservation to check incoming vehicles to slow the spread of the virus. The stops were noninvasive and quick-moving, the kind of screening people face when walking into some restaurants and other shops across the country. But Noem fought the checkpoints, claiming that the CRST did not have the jurisdiction to stop traffic. (Attorney, law professor, and director of the Indigenous Law & Policy Center at Michigan State University Matthew Fletcher believes the courts will find that the pandemic meets the necessary threshold of a “serious threat” that would enable the tribe’s checkpoints.)

Noem making the decision to embark on this checkpoint crusade in the middle of the pandemic, while an astounding waste of time and state resources, was not the most troubling aspect of the ordeal. The problem is one of control and, more to the point, the absolute refusal of colonizing structures to release it. This is deeper rooted than a first-term governor and it extends beyond this novel coronavirus—though both have absolutely acted as accelerants for the anti-Indigenous sentiments already baked into the system. Take the recent dustup in Rapid City, for instance.

For months, housing organizers across the country have been issuing warnings about how dangerous the pandemic winter will be for those without a steady housing situation. With Rapid City shelters operating at limited capacity and the pandemic forcing more people into poverty and situations of houselessness, the city has struggled to come up with the necessary solutions. Melanie Timm, the executive director of the Hope Center, which provides housing and accompanying services for the community, made as much clear when she spoke with KOTA TV, following the first snowfall in early September. “They just did not have the resources available to have a coat or long pants,” Timm said of the people that showed up at the Hope Center that week. “Their shoes and socks were soaking wet and very, very cold.”

Seeing a need in their community, Oglala Lakota organizers Hermus Bettelyoun and Lloyd Big Crow Sr., financed in part by the Native-led NDN Collective, turned what had started as a weekly food drive into Camp Mniluzahan, an encampment for Rapid City’s homeless Native population, outfitted with generators, a log-splitter, and a sweat lodge for those dealing with addiction or in need of spiritual healing. Camp Mniluzahan was initially located within Rapid City limits, near the fairgrounds. And like the CRST roadblocks, the camp was also immediately met with resistance, this time from the Rapid City government.

In late September, third-term Republican mayor and ex–police chief Steve Allender, making reference to the influx of homeless residents from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, told reporters, “The homeless that are here from out of town should go home immediately.” On the same night Camp Mniluzahan went up, Allender had police try to clear it out. The following morning, the mayor held a press conference in which he blew off a little steam. “I swear, every conversation about the homeless in the last month has been peppered with phrases like, ‘stolen land,’ and ‘treaty violations,’ and ‘getting land back,’” Allender said. He went on to accuse the organizers of wanting to “hold the government accountable for something that happened 150 years ago, or 500 years ago.” 

This is a senselessly dangerous power grab, not dissimilar to the one made by Noem back in May when she tried to fight the CRST checkpoints. Relegating the dispossession of Lakota land to the far past and disconnecting it from the efforts at Camp Mniluzahan, where Native people are seeking to create their own solutions to the overlapping crises of the pandemic and land theft, is transparent culture war garbage.

In an attempt to move past the spat with the city, organizers reopened Camp Mniluzahan on sovereign Lakota land, outside the city, where they have rebuilt the camp for homeless tribal citizens in the community. Speaking with Indian Country Today, the first outlet to report from inside the camp following its relocation, Steve Long Sr., an Oglala Lakota citizen living there, said of the effort, “You’re not in the city no more. You’re out here in our hills. These are ours. This land belongs to us.”  

The South Dakota tribes were among many that used their sovereign status to take preventative measures. In North Dakota, the MHA Nation beat Governor Doug Burgum in enacting a mask mandate. In Montana, the Blackfeet Nation shut down the entrance to its reservation that coincides with the entrance to Glacier National Park. The Navajo Nation has been using off-and-on weekend curfews since the spring, while the Picuris Pueblo at one point banned outside visitors hoping to take a pandemic road trip, as a way to limit spread—both efforts were cited by The Scientific American in September as crucial reasons why New Mexico was able to significantly limit the spread of the virus.

There is a sense of empowerment in seeing tribes flex their legal and jurisdictional authorities, but the pandemic has repeatedly made plain the futility of a partial response to the coronavirus. Noem and other Republican leaders, enforcing their ideological disregard for basic science and safety, threaten to tank the steps taken by tribal governments and communities to save lives. A tribal nation’s relationship with the surrounding state is important but not necessarily determinative of how successful it can be. But in this instance, both statewide and local leaders have committed themselves to blocking the solution. This is not about politics, it is about human lives. Were the stakes reversed, maybe Noem could be bothered to give a shit.