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As Native American tribes across the country struggle to contain the coronavirus, the White House has pressured the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe to remove its COVID-19 checkpoints on highways in South Dakota, according to a recording of White House chief of staff Mark Meadows obtained by the Mountain West News Bureau.
The tribe set up checkpoints on state and federal highways entering its reservation weeks ago, an effort to make sure travelers aren't carrying the virus. But the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, objected, saying the checkpoints interfere with interstate commerce and travel. She asked the White House to intervene.
Nikki Ducheneaux, a lawyer for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said the Trump administration argued that the checkpoints were illegal. "And when they realized how clear the law was in favor of us, then they shifted to a new tactic," Ducheneaux said.
That tactic, she said, was to threaten the tribe, implying that leaving the checkpoints in place could jeopardize the tribe's coronavirus relief aid.
"I can't allow checkpoints on federal roads," Meadows said during a call with tribal chairman Harold Frazier, a recording of which Ducheneaux provided to the Mountain West News Bureau. Then Meadows referenced the $8 billion in CARES Act funding for tribes, saying, "I also need you to use that money so that it doesn't create a problem for me on other issues because we still have another 40 percent of the money to go out."
Meadows implied that he was in charge of releasing those funds, and said, "I'm hopeful that you have enough financial assets to deal with this in a way that we can – we can work cooperatively…."
The tribe believes that was a veiled threat.
"White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows disgustingly, obliquely suggested that maybe something bad could happen to our CARES Act funding that Congress appropriated us to take care of our people," Ducheneaux said.
The conversation took place on June 9. The Trump administration later threatened to put the tribe's federal law enforcement contract into jeopardy, prompting the Cheyenne River Sioux to file suit on Tuesday, saying the action was unlawful.
White House spokesperson Judd Deere provided a statement to the Mountain West News Bureau, but it did not respond to the tribe's allegations or the lawsuit.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.