Weekends are for family. That’s a long-standing tradition for my kiddos and me.

Last Sunday was no different. My teenager and I spent the day together, enjoying each other’s company.

But instead of binge-watching a show on Netflix, we spent the day on Pine Ridge, passing out facemasks in Wounded Knee and Wamblee, dropping off care packages, checking up on friends and family and delivering donations for the elders.

My spirit was fed by the whole-hearted service we were able to extend, but my heart was broken for my Oyaté, my nation, as we all work together to try to keep each other safe and healthy and stop the spread of the coronavirus.  

Tribal governments have been taking important steps in combating the pandemic and protecting their people, too. The checkpoints set up by the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux tribes on roads traveling through their lands is a prime example of these efforts.

Gov. Kristi Noem, however, doesn’t like what the tribes are doing and has threatened legal action. But the tribes haven’t budged. A coronavirus outbreak could overwhelm tribal health care facilities.

Today, as the clash between Noem and state tribal leaders continues, the ACLU of South Dakota supports the rights of the tribes to continue their checkpoints..

Tribal sovereignty allows the tribes to operate these checkpoints within their land. Undermining that tribal sovereignty, that authority for the tribes to govern themselves, goes against the treaties the tribes have with the United States government. Per the U.S. Constitution, these treaties are the law of the land. But even with an obligation to uphold all treaties, the government’s track record is dismal. So for the tribes, these checkpoints are essential to protecting the health of the people on the reservations.

Noem’s demands for the tribes to remove the checkpoints and threat of legal action is an unnecessary escalation of the already strained relationship between the state and the two tribes. In fact, it’s an apt illustration of the longstanding fight for indigenous justice in South Dakota and throughout the country.

Native American tribes have suffered discrimination and injustice at the hands of colonizers since the country’s founding, yet contemporary civil rights discussions all too often ignore Native American rights.

The U.S. Constitution recognizes Indian tribes as distinct governments. With a few exceptions, tribes have the same powers as federal and state governments to regulate their internal affairs. This continued sovereignty allows tribal leadership to honor and perpetuate the traditional ways of life for the tribes.

Indigenous justice, however, is not racial justice alone, but a complexity of political and sovereignty issues.

It’s been the ACLU’s policy to support Native Americans’ right to a tribal land base and its natural resources as well as to support tribes who press their treaty rights with the U.S. government. Under these treaties with the U.S. government, tribes have the right to protect their land and their heritage.

The ACLU of South Dakota is committed to defending the rights of Native Americans and tribes to be free from discrimination and governmental abuse of power. The ACLU of South Dakota’s indigenous justice priorities are informed by conversations with indigenous leaders and community members across the state, with equity in all aspects of life as our top priority.

Threatening costly litigation or other legal action against the tribes isn’t the answer. Good relationships and solid communication is.

Only then will indigenous justice prevail.

A version of this column also appeared in the Rapid City Journal and the Pierre Capital Journal