How a South Dakota Native American Reservation Successfully Snuffed Out Coronavirus on Its Own Terms

A traffic checkpoint on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.
A traffic checkpoint on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. The Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation

The Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation didn't wait for anyone to tell them what to do.

The deadly coronavirus wasted no time laying siege to Native Americans as it disproportionately affected minorities across the country. 

The poor and disadvantaged suffer significantly more COVID-19 cases than white people. And Native Americans — many of whom have pre-existing medical conditions rendering them especially vulnerable, and have significant elderly populations — suffer the same fate. 

But in South Dakota, the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation wasted no time in taking matters into their own hands. Tribal leaders did not wait for state or federal agencies to tell them what to do.

In early March, they effectively locked down their 3-million-acre community, the home to more than 12,000 people, issuing curfews and establishing highway checkpoints that turned away non-residents and those coming from infected areas.

The number of confirmed virus cases to date: one. The number of dead: zero.

"This wasn't a recent event. As soon as we saw how the pandemic was spreading throughout China, we became alarmed," tribe spokesman Remi Bald Eagle told Community leaders started planning in February, just weeks after the first U.S. confirmed case was reported on Jan. 20, and before the first confirmed death occurred on Feb. 29.

The tribe's efforts are not without controversy. Republican Gov. Kristi Noem and reservation leaders are currently in a standoff over checkpoints on state highways. Noem has called them unlawful and threatened legal action. Community leaders say turning away non-residents is necessary to protect their people, and noted that commercial drivers are being allowed to travel the routes on their land.

Myriad reasons spurred tribal leaders into swift action: vulnerable populations such as the elderly and diabetic are prevalent on the reservation; the isolated, rural area is hours away from a medical trauma center, and perhaps most poignantly, the long, brutal relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government has taught them to rely only on themselves.

"Having no faith in the American system has saved us," Bald Eagle said. "If we had put our faith in the American system we would be like the Navajo now."

The Navajo Nation, the country's largest reservation in terms of land size, has been devastated by the virus. Straddling Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada in the Four Corners region, the region has the highest per-capita infection in the United States, with more than 150 deaths and more than 4,600 cases in a population of about 177,000.

The nation has more than half of the reported Native American corona cases, which numbered 9,179 as of Wednesday, according to the federal government's Indian Health Services. 

Like the Cheyenne Sioux River Reservation, Navajo tribal leaders attempted to fight the devastating virus with curfews, road blocks and social distancing guidelines, but were thwarted by the area's sheer size, its isolated regions without running water or phone reception, and a widespread lack of hospital and medical facilities.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said Tuesday the number of coronavirus cases may have peaked in late April, noting a decline in new reported infections in recent days. But the crisis is far from over.

On Tuesday, Democratic congressional lawmakers Elizabeth Warren and Deb Haaland condemned Washington for "disregarding the clear health crisis in tribal communities," and cited a long history of neglect.

"For generations, the federal government has failed to honor its promises to Native American people. Now, COVID-19 is ravaging Native communities, killing young people and elders alike," reads an open letter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights written by the pair.

Warren, a Massachusetts senator, and Haaland, a New Mexico representative, also noted the disproportionate devastation of Native Americans. In Haaland's state, for example, Native Americans make up 11% of residents, but account for more than half of coronavirus cases.

Federal help for the minority group included in Congress' first COVID-19 stimulus package, sat for more than 30 days before efforts started to distribute it, they wrote.

"Native nations still hadn't received a penny of the $8 billion the law provided to them. Only after we and our colleagues pressed the Treasury Department did it release some of the funds to tribal governments," the letter said.

At the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, government help of any kind was never on their radar.

Initially, leaders reached out to the state and the federal Army Corps of Engineers for help in establishing field hospitals on tribal land, Bald Eagle said. Those requests went unanswered, he said.

"We realized then that we were on our own," he said.

"We adopted a kind of beehive mentality," Bald Eagle said of their coronavirus plans. "If a case comes here, we have to swarm it ... to keep it from spreading." The reservation's sole case, a woman, resulted from a checkpoint stop, he said.

The woman was returning from Pierre, a virus hot spot, and was turned back to seek medical treatment outside the reservation. She tested positive, and stayed away until she recovered. She is now back home on tribal land, Bald Eagle said.

Harold Frazier, the reservation's chairman, said most residents are sheltering in place, wearing masks and respectfully following the strict guidelines for living in this new normal.

There have been a few complaints, he said, but that is to be expected. Local law enforcement has helped in the effort to limit travel on state highways traversing the reservation, he said. And more than 150 people have been deputized to complement the meager 24 reservation officers.

"Our constitution defines our jurisdiction" as a sovereign nation, Frazier said. The clampdowns will continue for as long as necessary, he said, to protect those at highest risk, including tribal elders, who carry his people's stories and their native language.

"The state has no jurisdiction on our land at all," he said. "We're trying to save lives."