PIERRE, S.D. — The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation’s enactment of shelter-in-place, curfew and border monitoring ordinances is what Chase Iron Eyes credits to keeping COVID-19 from having a more devastating impact on the Oglala Sioux Tribal members.
Iron Eyes is also the lead counsel on the Lakota People’s Law Project, and in 2016, the Democratic Party congressional candidate in North Dakota when he was living on the Standing Rock Reservation.
Iron Eyes said there’s been up to 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases on the reservation, which includes all of Oglala Lakota County, the southern half of Jackson County and the northwest portion of Bennett County in southwest South Dakota.
It is the eighth-largest reservation in the United States.
According to the South Dakota Department of Health, Oglala County has 24 active cases with 21 recoveries. Eleven people have been hospitalized.
Jackson County has three active cases with one person recovered and three people hospitalized and Bennett County hasn’t had a case of COVID-19 reported to the state.
All family members of those testing positive have been able to quarantine despite most households being above capacity for housing, Iron Eyes said. Quarantine life for these families hasn’t been easy, Iron Eyes said, adding that up to five families are living under one roof with as many as 16 children in one household “subsisting on a $50 tube of composite pink slime hamburger.”
Iron Eyes said stockpiling goods to allow for quarantine is difficult for families who don’t have the financial means to do so.
But the tribe is doing everything possible to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, knowing in hindsight how devastating Eurasian diseases can be to indegenious populations.
“Reservations have been the deliberate recipient of genocidal policies that would degenerate our health,” Iron Eyes said. “We’ve been extremely fortunate and lucky and chosen by God to survive this ongoing threat to our very existence. Biological threats freak us out. Any Euroasian disease that doesn’t have permission to be here, we have to repel that somehow through divine inspiration, through science and through action.”
Iron Eyes said he understands the state’s need to keep the tourism industry generating billions of dollars, noting the Mount Rushmore Fireworks event that President Donald Trump is expected to attend in the sacred Black Hills. The spread of the virus, as well as the potential for the fireworks to contaminate or destroy sacred sites in the Black, Hills is also a cause of concern.
“It’s all making us very nervous,” Iron Eyes said. “The only defense that seems to be working are the health checkpoints. The regulation of traffic outside foregin traffic is being regulated in a safe, legal and proper manner. We feel that it’s a judgement call for outsiders whether they want to take those same measures. In my opinion it’s one of the only things that’s kept our numbers relatively low compared to the Navajo Nation.”
Iron Eyes said he understands that the virus’s kill rate is only 3% of the population, but to lose that many tribal members is something that would have a devastating impact on families living on the reservation.
Statewide, the department of health reported Wednesday that another South Dakotan has died a result of COVID-19. That brings the statewide death toll to 69 as of Wednesday, June 10.
The death was of a Beadle County man in the 80 or older age group.
Eleven more people have been hospitalized for COVID-19, for a total of 101 people currently hospitalized after becoming infected with the novel coronavirus. There were 81 new positive cases reported, bringing that state’s total number of cases so far to 5,604.
Eighty more people recovered from being infected with the novel coronavirus, bringing total recoveries to 4,403.
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