Indianz.Com > News > Tim Giago: Republican governor fiddles while South Dakota burns
Indianz.Com Live with Kevin Abourezk: An Interview with Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier
Notes from Indian Country
Noem fiddles while South Dakota burns
Monday, November 2, 2020

My 6th grade teacher at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission Boarding School was named Mr. Fagan. He was a young man studying to become a Jesuit Priest and he came to South Dakota from back East to indoctrinate and teach at the boarding school.

One Monday morning we filed into our classroom and saw, in large white letters on the blackboard, a note that read, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Mr. Fagan made sure we were all seated at our desks before he pointed at the blackboard and explained to us why he had written that message there. He explained to us that there was a pandemic spreading across Indian Country. It was a deadly disease called tuberculosis or TB. He told us it was so bad in South Dakota that they had turned the old boarding school in Rapid City into a TB ward they now called the Sioux Sanitarium.

That memory comes back to me now because those words, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” would be totally appropriate to use when discussing the pandemic, Covid-19, that is now ravaging America and doing double damage to the Indian reservations, much like the TB of the 1930s and 1940s.

The Dewey County Sheriff’s Office in South Dakota assisted the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe at a coronavirus checkpoint on the reservation in April 2020. Photo courtesy Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

TB was still raging in South Dakota in the late 1940s when it struck my mother and her sister my Aunt Cecilia. I recall going to the Sioux San, as it was now known, to visit both of them just before I enlisted in the U. S. Navy. I was 17 years old and I remember visiting the ward where they were both recovering.

The Indian Health Service had decided that the best way to attack the TB epidemic was to take those who became ill and isolate them from their friends and relatives. This is exactly what is happening today with the Coronavirus epidemic.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” was as important back then as it is today. Wash your hands, wear a mask, and stay out of public places like restaurants and bars is what we are told to do today just as our ancestors were told to do 60 years ago. Many schools are closed today, but that did not happen during the TB epidemic. The schools did not close back then because we were pretty isolated at the boarding schools.

TB bacteria is spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks, sings, or laughs. A child usually does not become infected unless he or she has repeated contact with the bacteria. TB is not likely to be spread through personal items, such as clothing, bedding, cups, eating utensils, a toilet, or other items that a person with TB has touched. Good air flow is the most important way to prevent the spread of TB. Sound familiar?

The TB virus hung around for many years and it is likely that the Coronavirus will be the same. Tribal Chairmen like Harold Frazier, Chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, knew the history of pandemic diseases because of epidemics like TB that struck his reservation back in the 1940s. He did exactly what he should have done when the Coronavirus virus first appeared in South Dakota. He immediately set up road blocks on the reservations to check people entering and passing through the reservation for the virus.

Governor Kristi Noem got calls from a few white ranchers living on or near the reservation complaining that they had to go through road blocks set up by some “damned Indians.” Noem immediately sent out the word that she wanted them taken down immediately. She had absolutely no idea about the pandemics the Indian people have had to fight for so many generations, pandemics caused by the diseases brought to the reservations by the white man.

Frazier stuck to his guns and in essence told Noem to cool it. She immediately turned to her U. S. Senators, Thune and Rounds to assist her in removing the barriers, but they wanted no trouble with the Indian tribes so they remained silent.

Native Sun News Today, in an editorial, suggested that Noem read the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 about the sovereign status of the South Dakota tribes and to bone up on the many diseases that had decimated the tribes over the years. Haven’t heard too much out of her since then.

The reservations are still suffering under this disease and it looks like there will be a long fight ahead, but just as they beat the TB epidemic, they will beat this virus. The tribal people are strong, resilient and careful. And so while Noem has allowed the epidemic to make South Dakota number one in the Nation by not practicing the simple guidelines the Tribes are using, “An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure.”

In her carefree way, as Noem gallivants across America campaigning for Trump, the death rates in her state continue to rocket. In Trump she hooked her future to a falling star and will soon feel the crash.

Tim Giago, Publisher of Native Sun News Today, can be reached at Tim was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He wrote this article several years ago and decided it was time to bring it forward again at this time

Note: Content © Tim Giago