SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is suing President Donald Trump over threats it claims administration officials made as they sought to force the tribe to remove its COVID-19 checkpoints on roads leading into its lands in South Dakota.
In the suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Washington, D.C., the tribe claims Trump administration officials threatened to take control of policing on the tribe's reservation and block federal pandemic relief spending if the checkpoints didn't come down.
The administration's effort followed pleas for help by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and the state's congressional delegation after the tribe rejected Noem's 48-hour ultimatum in early May to remove the checkpoints or face legal action.
The federal pressure on the tribe to remove its checkpoints included a battery of extraordinarily high-level pressure from top administrative officials that equal a sustained and unlawful campaign of threats against the tribe, according to its suit.
In its filing, the tribe asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to block the federal government from taking over its law enforcement program and forcing removal of its checkpoints.
“Such threatened governmental actions represent unlawful infringement on tribal self-government and self-determination and put the tribe’s members at risk of imminent harm," the tribe stated.
The tribe authorized checkpoints on roads leading into the Cheyenne River Reservation in central South Dakota on April 1, seeking to monitor and control any influx of people infected with COVID-19, to protect itself and sustain its limited health care capacity.
Noem, who has notably rejected statewide restrictions and refused to issue a stay at home order, accused the tribe of improperly blocking traffic onto and through the reservation on federal and state roads.
A spokesman for Noem declined to comment, instead referring Forum News Service to the governor's statements and previously publicized letters regarding the checkpoints. The White House and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe didn't respond by deadline to a request for comment.
'I cant have checkpoints'
Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, called Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier on June 9 and personally threatened the tribe's federal COVID-19 relief funding, the suit claims, with Meadows repeatedly saying "I can't have checkpoints" on federal roads.
Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, spoke with Frazier via phone call on June 15 to persuade the tribe that COVID-19 danger was low in South Dakota and the checkpoints should be removed, according to the suit.
Bureau of Indian Affairs officials contacted tribal leaders in early June and said they might have to take over tribal law enforcement, claiming the checkpoints were in breach of the tribe's law enforcement contract with the federal government.
Those working as monitors at the checkpoint were improperly presenting themselves as as tribal police officers and weren't properly deputized and trained, the BIA claimed, according to the suit. The tribe countered by insisting its checkpoint monitors weren't employed under its law enforcement contract.
The tribe holds trust land in an area about 60 miles long and 90 miles wide, and just under half of its 21,965 members reside there, mostly in small, scattered communities.
The tribe has been largely successful at reducing the spread of COVID-19 on its reservation, with far fewer cases per capita than the state at large. The tribe has reported only six cases of COVID-19, no deaths and no known community spread, with all known cases traced to entries logged via the tribe's checkpoints, according to the filing.
Statewide, South Dakota on Wednesday announced another 66 COVID-19 cases, totalling 6,419 among state residents, with 629 hospitalized, and 84 known fatalities from the virus. The state's new cases and hospitalizations are far below the once-time projection of a mid-June pandemic surge that could swamp hospitals.
But health care access is a real concern on the reservation. Its Indian Health Service facility in Eagle Butte has only eight inpatient beds, six ventilators, two negative pressure rooms and is inadequately staffed, with zero respiratory therapists, the tribe said in its suit. The closest, more advanced medical facility is 175 miles away.