Governor Threatens to Sue Tribes Over Checkpoints
Last month, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem threatened to sue the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe if they did not remove highway stops within 48 hours. The tribes had set up the checkpoints to keep unnecessary visitors off the reservations. The chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said the checkpoints are essential to protecting the health of the people on the reservation, especially as the state never issued a stay-at home order.
Noem backed away from her plan earlier this month, offering to negotiate on the issue if they would take them off U.S. and state highways. The Republican governor is now appealing to President Donald Trump’s administration, asking for help resolving the dispute.
The chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe told Noem in a letter that the tribe would consider her request to restrict checkpoints to tribal roads, but that their sovereignty allows them to operate checkpoints anywhere on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, in northern South Dakota.
Trump Revokes Reservation Lands
A decision with implications for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s sovereignty over reservation lands is pending after a federal judge heard arguments in the tribe’s case on May 20, over teleconference.
In 2015, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, approved the tribe’s application to take 321 acres of land into federal trust to create the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation; this included 170 acres of land the tribe already controlled in Mashpee and also gave the tribe jurisdiction over 150 newly acquired acres in Taunton, Massachusetts.
In 2016, a U.S. district court found that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had exceeded its authority, and in February 2020, the First Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the district court, maintaining that the Department of Interior lacked authority to take tribal land into trust for the benefit of the tribe since the tribe was not under federal jurisdiction in 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act, which created the concept of trust land, was signed.
On March 27, 2020, the Trump administration announced it would remove the 321 acres of land from the federal trust and take away the designation of “reservation,” thereby removing the tribe’s ability to govern on its land and provide critical services to its members. This process has been done only one other time since the Termination Policy in the 1950s.
Tribes Sue Treasury Over Stimulus Aid
A group of Native American tribes are suing the Treasury Department for failing to provide billions of dollars in coronavirus relief allocated for tribes in the $2.2 trillion stimulus package. While the stimulus law mandated that $8 billion be provided to tribes by the end of April, tribal leaders say they have yet to receive any of the money, prompting the lawsuit which began in late April.
The tribes in the suit are: The Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, the Quinault Indian Nation and the Tulalip Tribes in Washington state; the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in Maine; the Akiak, Asa’carsarmiut Tribe and Aleut Community of St. Paul Island in Alaska; the Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah; Picuris Pueblo in New Mexico; the Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux tribes in South Dakota; San Carlos Apache in Arizona; and the Elk Valley Rancheria in California.
The delay stems in part from a dispute as to who is entitled to the aid. The Treasury Department is allowing corporations to apply for the aid, which many tribes are saying do not meet the definition of tribal governments and should not be eligible for the coronavirus relief as the size of the corporations could allow them to secure millions of dollars of the funding. The Trump administration has sided with the Alaska Native corporations.
Several lawmakers and aides involved in drafting the stimulus measure said that the intent was to allocate the money only to tribal governments, which were recognized in the Constitution and treaties that ultimately allowed the U.S. government to seize tribal land. A federal judge ruled in favor of the Indian nations that contested the Treasury’s move to give Alaska Native Corporations money. The injunction ruled that Alaska Native Corporations did not meet the definition of a “tribal government” set out in the act.
However, the judge entered a preliminary injunction, which is not a final order. Although the judge blocked the administration from sending relief money to the corporations, he did not order the government to distribute the entire $8 billion pool to the federally recognized tribes. The government could award money to Alaska Native Corporations and hold onto it until the legal fight is over. The Treasury Department recently sent a status report to the court, saying it “has not yet arrived at a determination” as to how to distribute the funds.