PIERRE, S.D. — A group of South Dakota’s state lawmakers that comprise the legislature’s tribal relations committee inquired how state Tribal Relations Secretary David Flute was and is handling the matter of tribal checkpoints during a tribal relations committee meeting Tuesday, July 21.
Reps. Shawn Bordeaux, Steven Haugaard, Peri Pourier, Tony Randolph, and Tamara St. John; and Sens. Red Dawn Foster, Troy Heinert, Phil Jensen, Lance Russell, and VJ Smith sit on the board.
St. John, who is a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribal member, questioned Flute, the former Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Reservation Tribal Chairman, on what his office was telling individuals that call to complain about the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s health checkpoints, which are situated on state and federal highways.
St. John said she’s had some individuals tell her that Flute’s office had encouraged them to contact the U.S. Department of Interior rather than communicate more with the tribal leaders.
“It seemed to me that some of the things were simple misunderstandings or someone having a car problem. Regardless of what we all think it affects that community and the neighbors in that area,” St. John said.
“I just want to know if you all are making that effort to try to resolve some of these things or are you encouraging them to voice their complaints on a higher level?”
Flute said that depending on the circumstances of the caller.
“They need to apply for travel permits if they want to conduct business on and through their reservation. However, there are inconsistencies, I say this respectfully,” Flute said. “And we have callers that have reached out to the tribe and in some instances they have been permitted to come through the reservations.”
Flute recalled a situation where a caller was able to get through one checkpoint, but was unable to get through another checkpoint during the same trip.
“So they’re confused and calling us and sharing their experience. For a couple of the individuals they were allowed access through the reservation with a permit but now they’re not being allowed a permit. They don’t understand the inconsistencies. We get calls everyday of people being turned away,” Flute said.
“My staff is not encouraging anybody to call the Department of Interior or to bring it to that level. The only thing we’ve been doing is we’ve been stating we apologize for the inconvenience and we try to offer alternative routes. Some are ok with that answer, some are very disgruntled. It depends on the day, but we have not encouraged anybody to take it to a higher level.”
St. John then took up concern that the state is not doing more to smooth things out with the tribe over the checkpoints. She noted how U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said it seemed to him that the tribes are within their right in the checkpoint issue and that this particular issue would “If you’re saying that this is an illegal checkpoint that in itself wouldn’t be something that would lead to smoothing things there,” St. John told Flute.
Seventeen state legislators had signed a letter Friday, May 8, to Noem stating the governor does not have the legal authority to force South Dakota tribes to take down health checkpoints.
The legislators’ letter says that Noem's statement that tribal governments do not possess the ability to establish checkpoints within the boundaries of their homelands is “not accurate.”
“For the record, I have never said in a private or public statement that these checkpoints were illegal,” Flute said during Tuesday’s meeting.
When asked by Bordeaux what Noem’s response was to the letter, Flute replied, “That’s a question you’d need to ask the governor.”
Bordeaux said the state legislators who signed the letter didn’t get any response at all and that “a simple no would’ve been nice,” to their offer to help communicate and find a resolution with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Bordeaux recalled Noem’s address in which one of her pillars was open and honest government.
“We have a committee, which has full authority to talk about tribal relations when it’s at its peak. So I think this committee is owed a response,” he added.
Bordeaux said that the state needs to be working on a local level to address each tribe individually and use its resources, including tribal members serving as state legislators, to the fullest extent. That’s the opposite of what he has seen Noem do, Bordeaux explained, referring to Noem’s letters to South Dakota’s congressional representatives and President Donald Trump that request assistance to resolve the issues the state has with the tribal checkpoints on state and federal highways.
Bordeaux and Sen. Troy Heinert are enrolled members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe while Rep. Piper Pourier and Sen. Red Dawn Foster, are enrolled members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
All four serve on the legislative tribal relations committee.
“Instead of engaging at the local level, we go and get the president who during this time is looking or nothing but trying to incite chaos for his own personal gain,” Bordeaux continued. “We really need all hands on deck and we need to take a better look at how we can engage and when we have activities coming up we all have to be on the same page.”
On May 8, Noem sent a letter to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who have set up health checkpoints on highways coming into their reservations saying the tribes would face legal action if the checkpoints were not removed.
The tribes have contended that the state has no authority to control tribal health checkpoints on highways located within the reservations.
South Dakota’s congressional delegation issued a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior and Attorney General William Barr requesting prompt inquiry into the disagreement between South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe regarding tribal checkpoints on state and U.S. highways.
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson and U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, all Republicans, sent the letter to federal officials on Wednesday, May 27 asking the Department of Interior to look into the matter to provide additional guidance to both the state and tribe.