Borders Against Infection

Montana tribes enforce sovereignty during COVID-19

Story by Kasey Faur and Madeline Broom

The tribal council on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation installed checkpoints at the entry points of the reservation’s borders on March 24, two days before Gov. Steve Bullock announced a shelter-in-place order for Montana.

Just east of there, on the Fort Belknap reservation, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes implemented a stay-at-home order on March 27, one day before Montana’s took effect.

In total, every reservation in the state has, in some way, been proactive in trying to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has shut down most of the planet. Tribal administrators said they are acting to protect citizens who tend to fall in the more susceptible populations

American Indians and Alaskan Natives are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, have a greater prevalence of obesity, and are more likely to be smokers than other ethnic groups in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This puts Native Americans at higher risk for dying from COVID-19, making the stakes high for leadership on Montana reservations to mitigate the spread.

This is where tribal sovereignty comes in. “There’s major pushback when tribes enforce their sovereignty both in Montana and across the country,” said David Beck, a Native American Studies professor at the University of Montana.

This pushback comes in many different forms and from many different places, including federal and state governments and law offices who actively pursue anti-sovereignty cases. Sometimes, the push back can be violent. This time is no different.

Tribal reservations are recognized as sovereign nations, with the authority to legislate policy within their borders. There are many different ways tribes enforce sovereignty, from exercising their rights to fish and hunt on certain lands, to being able to regulate their own water quality standards.

Amid the pandemic, several Montana tribes have enacted policies to protect tribal members.

● On the Flathead reservation, home of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the tribe has created a unified task force with Lake County, partnering up to tackle COVID-19 on a reservation where a majority of the residents are not enrolled tribal members.

● On the Blackfeet reservation, the tribal government has encouraged everyone to stay home and roads have been closed to all non-essential travel.

● The Northern Cheyenne Tribe has put an overnight 10 p.m. curfew mandate in place, which they later changed to 8 p.m., the earliest in Montana.

● The Crow Tribe has implemented similar checkpoints to the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s reservation on its reservation’s borders in southwestern Montana.

From closing borders and instituting checkpoints to enforcing curfews and closing recreational areas, tribes have done whatever is in their power to get ahead of COVID-19.

The allotment period, also known as the General Allotment Act, plays a role in what tribes are able to do within their borders. The act was meant “to break up tribal governments, abolish the reservations, and assimilate Indians into non-Indian society as farmers,” according to the United States Natural Resources Conservation Service.

To accomplish this goal, Congress divided tribal lands into individual parcels, gave each tribal member a parcel; and sold the “surplus” parcels to non-Native farmers.

These “surplus” parcels became known as fee land, which tribal governments don’t have jurisdiction over. The General Allotment Act ultimately reduced the amount of land held by American Indian tribes on reservations from 138 million acres in 1887, when the Allotment Act was passed, to 48 million acres in 1934, when the act was abolished. The landholdings have slowly increased to 56 million acres since then, mostly through land buy-back programs.

The fee lands complicate how much jurisdiction a tribal government has within its reservation boundaries.

Gov. Bullock announced the first phase of reopening after the state mandated stay-at-home order, which he let expire on April 26. Every tribe in Montana has since released a statement saying orders would not be lifted on their reservations.

Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation

Monte Mills, co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the University of Montana said placing a restriction on who has access to a reservation is easier when the tribe owns most of the land, as is the case for the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s reservation. This land is described as in “trust” of the tribe and is under the full jurisdiction of the tribe.

The tribal council of the Rocky Boy’s reservation was the first in Montana to place checkpoints at the entries of its reservations. This is the closest any Montana reservation has come to closing its borders.

The checkpoints were mainly installed to keep people with out-of-state license plates off the reservation; to keep people from bringing COVID-19 in, according to councilwoman Jody LaMere.

Law enforcement regularly screens any person inside a vehicle for symptoms of COVID-19: fever, shortness of breath, cough. If they have such symptoms, they are advised to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Chippewa Cree Tribal Chairman Harlan Baker said as of late April, less than 10 people have been turned away from entering. He said those turned away had “no business” being on the reservation, they weren’t residents, vendors or suppliers, but rather, they just wanted to “check things out,” he said.

LaMere said the tribal council is working hand-in-hand with the attorney general’s office to make sure its regulations aren’t violating any state or federal laws.

“I don’t sleep very good at night thinking that we’re responsible for so many thousands of people.”

-Shelly Fyant

Flathead Indian Reservation

The Flathead reservation spans four counties: Lake, Missoula, Sanders and Flathead.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes do not have the authority to close the Flathead reservation’s borders because it would be a treaty violation, said communications director Rob McDonald. The Hellgate Treaty of 1855, which established the Flathead Indian Reservation, secures the right for the U.S government to build a road through the reservation and grant both tribal members and other U.S. citizens equal and complete access.

“We can take action as far as our tribal lands, but we don’t really have the authority to close [the Flathead reservation],” said Shelly Fyant, chairwoman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The reservation is too spread out and “checkerboarded” to effectively close its borders, Fyant said.

The CSKT also formed a Unified Command Center with Lake County, “which was pretty historic in and of itself,” said Fyant, who specifically referenced the Flathead water compact, a deal that has taken the better part of a decade with contentious negotiations between the state and the tribe. “We don’t have a very civil relationship with Lake County Commissioners. But we all decided we needed to do what was in the best interest in the health of all the members.”

The Unified Command Center recently put five 6 foot by 10 foot signs around different entry-points of the reservation, telling people to stay home because of COVID-19.

Implementing restrictions much stronger than what the state government has enacted would be difficult to enforce, according to Monte Mills, co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the University of Montana.

This is because tribal police, and the tribal council, only have jurisdiction over tribal members on reservation land. Only 40% of the reservation’s population identifies as Native American, according to the United States Census.

The Flathead reservation, spread out as it is, is home to half of Flathead Lake, the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness and a number of popular campgrounds. It is important, Fyant said, for non-residents of the reservation to say out and help mitigate the spread of the virus. In order to further discourage visitors, recreational areas were closed.

“We have such a beautiful reservation, people flock here,” she said.

Since Gov. Bullock announced the shelter-in-place order, Fyant and other tribal council members have seen vehicles with out-of-state plates on the reservation. Fyant and her boyfriend recently saw a camper with Indiana plates and thought, “Wow, people are really still coming here.”

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation manager Tom McDonald said the waters are still open to boating and fishing for everyone, because activities on the water are agreed upon between CSKT and the state, so it would be more difficult to get those restricted. “There are still people fishing and boating on the Flathead [Lake],” he said.

Fyant said she worries some people are treating the shelter-in-place order like it’s a vacation.

“People are just going here and there and everywhere,” she said, explaining she’s seen people going to the store in big groups and lingering around rather than just going in, getting what they need, and leaving.

“I don’t sleep very good at night thinking that we’re responsible for so many thousands of people,” she said.

A frustration for the Salish and Kootenai tribal council has been a disruption in the places it accesses and its cultural routines. For instance, Fyant said the tribe’s annual fall Bitterroot dig, in which tribal members take buses to Hot Springs, Montana will be noticeably affected. Participants in the annual event come together to gather Bitterroot and pray to honor their dead. This year, Fyant said, there is going to be a much smaller group attending, and while people are welcome to attend on their own, the event is going to be much more low-key than usual.

The Salish and Kootenai aren’t alone. Almost all Montana tribes have canceled community events.

“[COVID-19] is really changing the dynamics of how we are used to gathering. But it is what it is, we have to adjust,” Fyant said. “As Native people, we’ve always been able to do that, we’ve always been having to adjust to situations as they change, like with climate change: Plants and medicines bloom earlier than usual, and we’ve had to adjust to that.”

“If there’s a threat to human lives–I’ll close the roads first and beg for forgiveness later.”

-Robert DesRosier

Blackfeet Indian Reservation

The Blackfeet tribe hasn’t closed its borders, and the tribe’s incident commander, Robert DesRosier, hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“We probably could close our borders if we wanted to, but that’s a scenario we don’t want to go into,” DesRosier said. If the tribal council decided it had to close the borders of the Blackfeet reservation, he said, it would establish checkpoints and try to keep people from stopping, but they couldn’t keep people from driving through unless human lives were in danger.

In winter of 2018, DesRosier ordered the closure of a state highway West of of Browning, a federally owned road on the Blackfeet reservation, due to extreme blizzard conditions. “Roads don’t have right-of-way over human lives,” he said.

Above all, DesRosier said when taking measures to contain COVID-19, it’s important to be realistic.

“I’ve closed roads before,” DesRosier said. “If there’s a threat to human lives, I’ll close the roads first and beg for forgiveness later.”

The Blackfeet reservation shares a border with Canada, as well as other federal and state roads, so closing them and trying to keep people from driving would be a “contentious issue.”

The Blackfeet tribe issued an order on April 2 to close all vacation rentals on the reservation and another one to restrict all non-essential traffic on the reservation.

DesRosier said these orders were made to keep the virus at bay by keeping people from traveling within the reservation and by keeping outsiders from bringing COVID-19 to them.

“We’re putting out a public plea,” Blackfeet incident commander Des Rosier said, “Take this seriously and stay home.”

DesRosier said while most people seem to be taking the virus seriously, the police department has issued citations to a few people who were caught out past curfew when they didn’t need to be.

“We’re making sure we have our rules in order and everything is enforced,” he said.

Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation

When COVID-19 first came to the council’s attention, the initial reaction was to close the reservation’s borders, said Dana Eagle Feathers, Northern Cheyenne tribal councilman. The problem is Highway 212, which runs through Lame Deer, the heart of the Northern Cheyenne reservation.

The governor’s office and Montana Department of Transportation told the council it couldn’t stop or re-route traffic on Highway 212 as it’s a state highway The Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council also needs the highway to stay open so supplies can still be delivered to the reservation.

Eagle Feathers said he personally believes the council could close the reservation if the safety and health of the residents is in danger because the highway is within the boundaries of the reservation.

For these reasons, the tribal council has posted signs at each entrance of the reservation asking truckers and non-residents to not take 212 and to instead take I-90 around from South Dakota through Wyoming to Montana, or, for westbound traffic to detour at Broadus, a town in Montana.

At the roundabout in Lame Deer, similar signs are posted asking truckers and non-residents not to stop as they are passing through, although the Northern Cheyenne tribe doesn’t have the resources to enforce this,  according to Eagle Feathers.

The signs and detour requests triggered outrage and a torrent of racist and vitriolic comments on Facebook, particularly in a message posted on March 28 to The Montana Department of Transportation Sting Location, a Facebook page made to help enforce “commercial vehicle laws and statutes,” according to the page’s “About” section.

The message described the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council’s suggestion to detour around the reservation and Highway 212.

“Just give ‘em a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cheap smokes, they’ll move,” one Facebook user commented.

“It’s not like people are stopping and passing out blankets with smallpox on them,” another said. “Oh wait, that’s already been done before.”

There have been rumors circulating in truckers’ circles and among the tribal council that Natives are throwing rocks and bricks at trucks and vehicles with-out-of-state plates who drive down Highway 212. Eagle Feathers said this rumor is untrue.

On April 9, the tribe’s president put out an order announcing that products such as medical supplies and groceries are still allowed to be delivered to the reservation via Highway 212 as they are important to the health and well-being of reservation residents.

Eagle Feathers said he doesn’t believe COVID-19 is as bad as it’s been made out to be, but he’s happy the tribal council and reservation are reacting the way they have, “so that way, if we have an actual disaster, we’ll already have these things in place.”

“If we can survive smallpox, we can survive just about anything,” he said.

Crow Indian Reservation

The Crow tribe has met similar racism, both on Facebook and at checkpoints posted at the entries of the Crow reservation. Besides the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s reservation.

Crow resident and former chief of staff to the tribal vice president, Noel Two Leggins said he’s seen Facebook posts and heard stories of people responding to being turned away from the checkpoints by calling the people “dirty Indians,” “alcoholics” and “drug addicts.”

Two Leggins said that even if COVID-19 wasn’t a problem, the Crow tribe still has a right to do what it wants with its land, including turning people away if it deems necessary.

Two Leggins said he had a recent experience at the Cenex gas station in Hardin, a town right outside of the borders of the reservation with an out-of-stater seeking escape at the Big Horn River on the Crow reservation.

“I saw a maroon Ford F-250 pulling an R.V., and saw the plates were from New York,” Two Leggins said. “I asked him what [he and his family] were doing out here and he said, ‘We’re escaping from the coronavirus.’”

Two Leggins said he told the man he should’ve been more considerate because he could have infected somebody, coming from out of state, and then he followed the vehicle after it finished filling up just long enough to see them enter the Crow reservation and go up toward the Big Horn River.

“When I come off the reservation, I follow the rules, I respect the law, and I just wish non-Natives could do the same, but they don’t,” Two Leggins said. “They just think they can do whatever they want.”

A SPECIAL PROJECT BY THE UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM

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