Tribe Sues Trump Over Threats to Pull COVID-19 Funds If Checkpoints Not Shut-Down

A COVID-19 checkpoint on the border of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. 

President Trump’s chief of staff threatened to withhold federal COVID-19 relief from the Tribe if it refused to remove checkpoints intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus, states a lawsuit filed on June 23rd.

Starting in early April when the coronavirus hit South Dakota, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe exercised its powers of self-governance and jurisdiction by erecting COVID-19 checkpoints on state and federal highways where they pass through reservation lands. The checkpoints served to protect the boundaries of Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to preserve the health, safety and welfare of Tribal members. 

“The Tribe’s COVID-19 response planning is essential to protect the Tribal population, which suffers heightened vulnerability to the disease because of endemic poverty and health disparities,” states the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Washington federal court. 

Tribal checkpoints have effectively stemmed the spread of the virus on the reservation, as compared to the higher rates of infection throughout South Dakota. But South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem saw the checkpoints as “roadblocks” and solicited the Trump Administration to intercept in the Tribal-state dispute. 

Ever since Gov. Noem issued her plea, the federal government has been, according to the lawsuit, coercing the Tribe to dismantle its checkpoints, meanwhile threatening the Tribe’s right to federal CARES Act aid. “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 lawsuit states. 

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has filed a 38-page complaint for “injunctive and declaratory relief” against President Donald Trump, White House officials, and leadership in the Department of Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

The suit alleges Chief of Staff Mark Meadows threatened Tribal security and right to CARES Act aid on June 9th, during a call with Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier. Meanwhile, federal and BIA officials have also intervened with the Tribe’s law enforcement. 

The lawsuit notes, “in any test of balancing interests, the tribe’s checkpoints pose only a minor inconvenience to non-Indian motorists when compared to the seriousness of the threat of COVID-19 to the reservation.”​

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