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Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman On Checkpoints: 'We're Doing It To Save Lives'


There is a standoff in South Dakota. The Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux tribes have set up checkpoints on highways that run through their lands to protect their communities, they say, from COVID-19. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has now given them 48 hours to remove them. Both tribal governments have refused the demand. In letters to the tribes, Governor Noem said, we are strongest when we work together. This includes our battle against COVID-19. I request that the tribes immediately cease interfering with or regulating traffic on U.S. and state highways and remove all travel checkpoints. The stops are designed to screen vehicles to prevent coronavirus from entering the Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge reservations.

Harold Frazier is chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. He says that through a comprehensive tracking and tracing system, they've kept the coronavirus at bay.

HAROLD FRAZIER: I'm very fortunate. At this time, we only had one case. And it has done real well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is tremendously important, he says, given the risks of an outbreak there.

FRAZIER: We live in north central part of South Dakota. It's basically middle of nowhere. The nearest health facility is a three-hour drive in Rapid City, S.D., for critical care. And our health facility is basically just - we only have eight beds. 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, you know, where are they going to go?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he adds his tribal members are a particularly vulnerable population.

FRAZIER: The poverty, the obesity, the diabetes, the respiratory - I mean, we could just go on and on. We know that if it was to ever hit our reservation, it's going to be really detrimental to a lot of our people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Deaths and infections continue to climb in South Dakota, which has reported over 3,000 coronavirus cases. South Dakota's Republican governor has refused to impose a lockdown in the state, citing constitutional freedoms. In a letter responding to the governor, Chairman Frazier said, quote, "They will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death." Here's Chairman Frazier again.

FRAZIER: We're definitely not going to back down. We're doing it for the right reasons. And we are doing it to save lives. And that's our goal. I mean, we ain't doing this to harm anybody, hold anybody up. We are doing this to save our residents, their lives and work hard to ensure good health for everybody here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The governor's deadline is today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.