As a Native Hawaiian, I stand in support of the Cheyenne River Sioux, the Oglala Lakota and the Rosebud Sioux, who are being threatened with legal action by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem for setting up law enforcement checkpoints on state highways that cross through their tribal lands.

Nonresidents traveling from out-of-state or from designated COVID-19 hotspots within the state are being asked to drive around, rather than through their reservations. Those who are engaging in essential business may enter after having cleared a health questionnaire.

Noem is demanding that these checkpoints be taken down for “interfering with traffic on U.S. and state highways.”

Cheyenne River Chairman Harold Frazier explained that his reservation is ill equipped to deal with an outbreak: they have an eight-bed hospital for 12,000 members and the nearest critical care facility is three hours away.

Hand-washing is necessary to prevent the spread of infection, yet access to running water is unstable for half of their residents, some 10% of whom live in remote areas that aren’t even connected to a water supply. Many drive up to 50 miles to get food and water, rely on outhouses, and do without electric power and broadband service.

Several Indian tribes in South Dakota are trying to protect their people and lands from COVID-19. Flickr: Raymond Bucko, SJ

Frazier said, “With the lack of medical resources we have, this is our best tool.”

He is right; the checkpoints have proven effective. There has been just one case among the Cheyenne River Sioux, whereas South Dakota has over 4,563 confirmed cases and 50 deaths, the fifth-highest mortality rate in the nation.

Other tribes have not been so fortunate. The nation of 174,000 Navajo living in the Four Corners area has the highest rate of COVID-19 infection in the United States with 4,689 cases, 156 deaths, and peaks occurring every five days.

Population Collapse

At the time of first contact with European explorers, indigenous people across the “New World” suffered catastrophic population collapse, and as J. Keaweaimoku Kaholokula, chair of the John A. Burns School of Medicine Department of Native Hawaiian Health writes, “Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders hold onto bitter memories of how infectious diseases decimated our thriving populations.”

Indigenous people continue to experience excess rates of sickness and death. During the 2009 H1N1 Flu Epidemic, American Indians and Alaska Natives died at four times the rate of all other ethnic groups in the United States. In our present pandemic, NHPI living in California have three times the rate of COVID-19 infections and four times the rate of death compared to state averages.

The causes of these disparities are multifaceted, but correctable. They are maintained by systemic inequities and discriminatory policies.

Justin Huenemann, president and CEO of Notah Begay III Foundation, stated, “The fact that Native Nations and our Indigenous relatives continue to disproportionately suffer from such health and economic devastations is an indictment on this country and its leadership at all levels.”

The National Congress of American Indians tweeted: “NCAI reminds the governors of each state that treaty rights and rights to regulate reservation land represent those self-governing rights which were never ceded and which preexist the United States.” Our indigenous relations need to be supported, not condemned when taking defensive measures to prevent a second genocide.

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