In struggling tribal lands, vaccines have offered relief lacking in urban areas

In struggling tribal lands, vaccines have offered relief lacking in urban areas

People look at the Grand Canyon from the Hualapai Indian Reservation in Arizona Feb. 28, 2018. Because of the federal Indian Health System, Native Americans living on tribal lands have better access to COVID-19 vaccines than the 70 percent of Native Americans who live in urban areas and have trouble accessing IHS services. (Credit: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters via CNS.)

As news spread of COVID-19's toll on vulnerable populations, the health of 73-year-old great-grandmother Carol Craig was of great concern to her 8-year-old great-granddaughter.

As news spread of COVID-19’s toll on vulnerable populations, the health of 73-year-old great-grandmother Carol Craig was of great concern to her 8-year-old great-granddaughter.

“I don’t want to go to school and come back home and get you sick, great-grandma,” Craig recalled that the little girl would say, worried about contracting COVID-19 and infecting her great-grandmother, whom she lives with in a multigenerational home on Yakama Nation, an American Indian reservation in central Washington state.

Tribal communities such as Yakama Nation have been hit hard during the pandemic.

Early on, the Centers for Disease Control identified the country’s American Indian communities “as one of the racial and ethnic minority groups at highest risk from the (coronavirus) disease,” saying they were likely to die from COVID-19 at a rate 1.8 times higher than that of non-Native populations.

Coronavirus-related deaths and suffering of elders in tribal communities, where they are revered as the repositories of ancient language, culture and faith, have been keenly felt.

Craig’s great-granddaughter even warned others in the household to be extra careful around the beloved elder.

“Everyone is going to have to be like Mr. Monk and use hand wipes all of the time,” the little girl would tell the other family members, referencing the fictional TV character, whose fear of germs led him to constantly wash his hands.

Though many lives and precious knowledge was lost with those who died, when vaccinations began arriving in tribal lands for trials in late December and in early 2021, tribal authorities wasted no time in protecting their remaining members, Craig, a reporter and photographer for the Yakama Nation Review, told Catholic News Service Feb. 17.

“Seems tribal people are getting it done,” said Craig, who received her second shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Feb. 1. And with a fast-moving vaccination program, Craig’s daughter was days away from getting her final vaccine.

A Feb. 16 article from the digital news agency Indian Country Today says that in much of continental U.S. and Alaska, tribes “are leading the way in vaccinations due to an existing health system.”

“Tribes are doing better and that’s because of the Indian Health System,” said Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today’s managing editor, referring to IHS, the network of federal clinics and hospitals that serve members of federally recognized Native American Tribes and Alaska Native people.

But that doesn’t mean that American Indians as a population are doing better when it comes to getting vaccinated, even though they’re willing to get vaccinated at higher rates than the general population, Bennett-Begaye told CNS in a Feb. 17 interview.

That’s because about 70 percent live in urban areas, not on tribal lands, and many have trouble accessing IHS services. In some cases, facilities may be out of the way. Away from tribal territories, American Indians also may face other health care disparities, such as lack of insurance.

The rapid rollout, however, has sent some enrolled in tribes back to their home communities, to access the precious vaccine at tribal health facilities or an IHS center, drastically cutting what could be a month-long wait to weeks.

“Tribes know how to communicate with people,” said Bennett-Begaye, who also is contemplating heading to her Diné community in New Mexico’s four corners from the District of Columbia to get a shot.

Though it’s hard to pin down official numbers of vaccinations on reservations, Navajo Nation officials announced Feb. 18 they had administered 101,332 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, almost two weeks ahead of their targeted deadline.

“COVID-19 vaccine doses are going into the arms of our people at a very high rate here on the Navajo Nation,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. “The confidence level in the vaccines is very high among our Navajo people and that’s evident by the long lines of people wanting to receive the vaccine that we see at each vaccination site.”

The Tulsa World newspaper reported Jan. 21 that “more than 13,000 tribal citizens in Oklahoma have received COVID-19 vaccinations through Cherokee Nation, Osage Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation health care services.”

Cherokee Nation said the tribe had administered 10,000 COVID-19 vaccines during the last week of January to its members. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota said in late January that 10 percent of its population had received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Before the vaccine, the incidence of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases among American Indians was 3.5 times that of non-Hispanic whites, the CDC said, with American Indians hospitalized due to COVID-19 at a rate 5.3 times higher.

Factors such as “shared transportation, limited access to running water, household size” on tribal lands facilitated community transmission, the CDC said.

“At one point in tracking COVID deaths in Indian Country, I broke down crying because those people lost were moms, dads, aunties, uncles, etc. They were someone’s world. They held important stories and knowledge,” tweeted Bennett-Begaye Feb. 11.

“My ‘cheii’ (grandpa) passed in November. The isolation, lack of movement and social/community connection hurt him so much,” she said in the tweet. “This pandemic took someone I/we loved. It hurts to know that he was WEEKS away from receiving the vaccine.”

Many are left to mourn, not just the elders who died as a result of COVID-19, or for reasons associated with the pandemic, but the loss of culture, too. Some tribes have even prioritized fluent speakers of indigenous languages to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Throughout the country, tribal community members pulled together in any way they could to keep others safe. In August, American Indian artist HollyAnna “CougarTracks” DeCoteau Littlebull began making plastic shield masks using 3-D technology and began sending them to places such as Crow Nation in Montana, Navajo Nation and the Yakama reservation, for free.

Tribal elders, too, have been contributing, encouraging others, not just to protect themselves but to protect the community life for all. In the Yakama Herald Review, tribal elder LaRena Sohappy, Yakama Nation’s General Council vice chair, wrote a column giving encouragement and advice about the path ahead for survival.

“It’s evident that COVID-19 is not going to be conquered any time soon. Our people of past generations survived other diseases very much as we are today. They also laid to rest many relatives but, somehow, they survived to tell their personal sufferings and all the other experiences they had to endure. Those stories are in our history,” she wrote.

She said she would receive the vaccine and discouraged misinformation about it, while also asking for patience with important customs and practices that have been affected as a result of the pandemic.

“Our elders no doubt had to forgo the traditional ceremonials just as we have to today, and I’m certain they did not rebel and proceeded to conduct the ceremonies because they were reminded of any consequences that could befall them and their families,” Sohappy said.

“So today, we need to adhere to laws, rules and regulations that are enacted — these rules are there to protect or provide safety for us, not a form of punishment,” she continued. “You know that a day will come that will allow us to conduct those important ceremonies for our loved ones that moved on. It may be in the ‘sometime’ future; but it will come.”

“In the meantime,” she wrote, “we should be planning who-what-when-where our belated ceremonies will take place. … We don’t have time to be self-pitying. We have work to do: beading, sewing, preserving proper foods, etc. That’s who we are, that’s what we do, that’s what we have been taught, and that’s our tradition.

“A question we each have to ask and respond to: Do we be brave and accept the vaccine? Or do we continue to witness our loved ones to leave us too soon?”

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