Governor Kristi Noem’s battle over tribal security COVID-19 checkpoints in South Dakota has wound up in court after two tribes sued.
The Crow Creek reservation didn’t have checkpoints, but it did have something called “COVID-19 Security” to help monitor cases and those quarantined, as well as collect data for the tribe.
Now several tribal members who make up that security team are dead and one is on life support, all sickened by COVID-19.
The Crow Creek Reservation sits just north of Chamberlain and southeast of Pierre.
It’s extremely rural, with just 2,225 people call the more than 400 square miles home. This story takes place in a Crow Creek community known as Big Bend. Fewer than 80 people live there.
Now three are dead, and one is on life support, after trying to protect their little community from COVID-19.
And 57-year-old Ethel Left Hand Bull was put on life support on July 16th, at Avera McKennan in Sioux Falls, where she remains in critical condition.
All three were working COVID-19 security for the Crow Creek Tribe, monitoring who came into town and who needed to be under quarantine.
“And you know there’s not a whole lot of traffic here at all. Everybody when this virus first started, we’re a very small community. And the majority of the families who live here–we’re all related and we all quarantined,” Janice Howe said.
Janice Howe is Wesley’s mother and Ethel’s sister. Randy was her cousin. She says they all got sick after confronting visitors who arrived in the tiny Big-Bend community from California, to tell them they couldn’t be there due to COVID-19. Her sister Ethel was their supervisor.
“I wish I could have told my son, don’t go with her over there. But that was his job. So that’s what he did. Now he’s gone. It’s just sad that that’s what they were doing and they ended up dying,” Howe said as she cried.
Wesley had liver disease after fighting drug and alcohol addiction for most of his life, but he was finally in recovery.
When he got sick with COVID-19, he was airlifted to Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, where he died five days later.
Howe: They did everything they could to save him. But his liver shut down, his kidneys shut down. There was nothing they could do.
Kennecke: You couldn’t even say goodbye to your son?
Howe: Nope, no, we couldn’t.
56-year-old Ken Jewitt, was the father of another member of the COVID-19 Security team, who died on June 27th. Howe says he caught the virus from his son.
23 people out of 78 in the Big Bend village have now tested positive for coronavirus.
While the tribe has its suspicions over how the virus was spread among members, they really don’t know for sure.
Meanwhile, this grieving mom is hoping her younger sister, a teacher, survives. Ethel was helping to make sure families in quarantine had food and cleaning supplies.
“She’s still fighting for her life. She has children, she has grandchildren she took care of. This COVID security supervisor is just her summer job. We were isolated. We don’t have no major stores here. We don’t even have a convenience store. We thought we were safe,” Howe said.
Today Wesley Fire Cloud Jr. would have turned 39. His family is holding a birthday party for him.
According to the South Dakota Department of Health, 24 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths are Native Americans.