Vernon Black Eyes, 32, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, gives a bottle of hand sanitizer to a man in Lincoln, Nebraska, on March 22, 2020. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

'We've been here forever. We'll be here forever': Indian Country takes action to address coronavirus pandemic

As coronavirus cases across America continue to surge, tribal leaders are taking dramatic steps to ensure the safety of their people and those they serve.

In northern California, the Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians have shut down their casino and restricted customers from entering their gas station, as well as closing down all but the essential services of its government.

The Cherokee Nation also has shut down its hotels and casinos in northeastern Oklahoma but has chosen to keep its government operating in order to ensure the delivery of much-needed services to its citizens.

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians closed casino doors for at least two weeks and shut down all but the essential services of its government.

“Only a skeleton crew that’s necessary to keep the operations in the government going will be in place,” Aaron Payment, chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, told Indianz.Com.

Aaron Payment serves as chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and as vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

As of late last week, more than 50 tribes had declared emergencies, more than 40 had imposed travel restrictions and dozens had attempted to close their borders to outsiders and non-residents in hopes of slowing the spread of the potentially dangerous disease.

Meanwhile, the Indian Health Service announced Thursday that 14 people within its federally-run system had tested positive for COVID-19, including three from the Navajo Nation, though the tribe later updated the number of Navajo citizens who had tested positive to 14. Then on Monday, the tribe updated those figures to 29 positive cases.

Amid the spread, Navajo leaders issued an unprecedented “stay at home order” for all residents and ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses.

Three new positive COVID-19 cases reported among Navajo people WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Navajo Nation President Jonathan...

Posted by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer on Monday, March 23, 2020

Tribal leaders and those who advocate for tribes have maintained constant communication with federal officials charged with overseeing federal services to tribes. Much of the talk last week focused on federal aid packages meant to bolster the economy and put money in the hands of taxpayers.

Both rescue packages proposed by the U.S. Congress include funds for tribes, including "no less than" $40 million in one bill to be funneled through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and another $64 million in another bill to be administered by the IHS to cover the cost of COVID-19 testing. The second bill also provides $10 million for programs that provide nutrition assistance to elderly Native Americans.

A relief package put forth by the Republican leaders in U.S. Senate, however, does not mention tribes, American Indians or Alaska Natives at this point. On Sunday, Democrats in the chamber blocked action on that bill, which they said failed to protect workers and impose tougher restrictions on businesses that were to benefit.

In a March 7 letter to Alex Azar, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Indian Health Board called on the federal government to distribute funding to tribes for COVID-19 through IHS, rather than the CDC.

Stacy Bohlen, NIHB's chief executive officer, said the reason for that request was the tribes’ belief that the IHS would be better equipped to get those funds more quickly and directly to IHS facilities, as well as to healthcare facilities operated by tribes through self-governance compacts.

But she said it doesn’t seem likely that the federal government will change course and funnel those funds through IHS, with the Trump administration announcing on Friday that the CDC would be in charge of distributing $80 million.

“They want the money, directly, quickly, with as few hand ties as possible so they can serve their people the way they know to best under this crisis,” she said. “It is very frustrating for us.”

“The money is stuck in a bureaucratic process that we’re not privy to.”

Meanwhile, tribes and IHS hospitals will have to manage with the resources they have, she said.

Bohlen said tribally-controlled healthcare faces especially difficult challenges of trying to monitor the disease’s progress in its facilities because of outdated electronic medical records systems.

She said NIHB has advocated for massive investment in electronic medical records technology.

“In terms of a national picture, that surveillance is not possible with the existing system within Indian Country,” she said.

And IHS hospitals also face challenges of conducting COVID-19 tests as they lack the equipment necessary to analyze those tests once they are administered.

“Tribes are being turned back to local, county and state health concerns to get those tests read, and there’s a backlog that’s quite troubling to getting the tests read,” she said.

Those hospitals also lack the personal protective equipment – masks, gloves and scrubs – needed to respond to an outbreak, Bohlen said. According to a survey conducted in early March of 197 tribal leaders, medical providers and partners, the NIHB found that 87 percent of respondents reported not having received any personal protective equipment from the federal government.

Another 82 percent of those who answered the survey said they were not using the COVID-19 test.

To try to address those deficiencies, the NIHB and other tribal advocates, such as the National Congress of American Indians, have been lobbying federal lawmakers to ensure tribes and IHS hospitals are provided the resources they need to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Bohlen said. Unfortunately, they aren’t getting the response they need from those lawmakers, she said.

“We’re fighting as hard as we can for those dollars and educating madly on the hill,” she said. “This is a very robust effort that is not bearing the kind of fruit it needs to bear frankly.”

She said the coronavirus pandemic has served to further demonstrate the already deplorable social and health problems facing most tribes, including disproportionate rates of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, lung disease and immunosuppressive disorders – all conditions that health officials have said create greater vulnerability to COVID-19.

“We are operating in an environment of severe disadvantage,” she said.

Kevin Allis, NCAI's chief executive officer, said Native people face other challenges that exacerbate efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus, including crowded housing conditions and lack of access to fresh foods.

Native people experience overcrowding housing at a rate of eight times the national average, and nearly 32 percent of rural tribal households live more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store, he said.

“This is a serious situation that could have devastating impacts on Indian Country,” he said.

The decision by many tribes to shut down their casinos, which often provide a significant portion of the revenue they need to fund essential government services, also has begun affecting tribes’ ability to prepare for potential outbreaks.

Diana Cournoyer, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, said many Native children will experience hunger in the coming weeks and month as one their primary sources of nourishment – the schools they attend – have shut down. She said 183 schools that serve Native communities have closed and many tribal colleges have shifted to online learning.

She said Native children won’t be able to continue learning while their schools are shut down.

“Thirty-seven percent of Native students don’t have access to internet,” she said.

She said federal funds will be needed to provide food to Native students during the current crisis and to ensure those students have the ability to access online education.

Allis said it’s important to remember that federal programs, like IHS and the Bureau of Indian Education, that serve tribal communities were paid for through the sacrifices of tribes.

“This is the obligation that the United States of America has to Indian Country through the treaties we signed when we ceded millions of acres,” he said. “That’s the deal. That’s the agreement.”

Bohlen said the NIHB plans to launch a resource website this week for tribal communities. She said it will be important for those communities to also rely on their traditional healers as they face the threat of the coronavirus.

“We have traditional medicines and ceremonies that we should rely on to boost our immune systems now,” she said.

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Last Friday morning, a group of Native healers gathered in Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota to offer prayers of healing. David Swallow, a traditional healer from the Pine Ridge Reservation, joined them.

The 69-year-old citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe said those gathered smoked their medicine pipes and sang prayer songs.

“We said in there, ‘If this is a true sickness, take it away,’” Swallow said. “Because we don’t know if it’s true or not. It's hard to believe what white man tells us, really hard to believe.”

He said Native healers will be able to address the crisis if it’s a man-made crisis, but he said they likely won’t be able to fight it if it’s a disease sent by the creator.

“If the virus stems from the natural, we cannot interfere because they’ve sent it to us as a message that something is wrong in this world,” he said.

He said the Lakota have survived pandemics like this before, including smallpox epidemics that were intentionally spread to tribes by 18th century British colonists. He said they would survive this disease as well.

“This is a dark cloud that's over the whole nation, and the dark cloud will go away pretty soon,” he said. “I'll tell the people, my people, all indigenous people and those who believe in the spiritual ways of the creator, take courage and be strong.”

In the meantime, tribes are taking a host of precautions to try to stop the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, closing casinos, shutting down tribal government offices and closing schools.

In Nebraska and Iowa, the Ponca Tribe declared a state of emergency on March 13 and then closed its casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, just five minutes from downtown Omaha, Nebraska. While the tribe wasn’t required to abide by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to shut down casinos, Ponca leaders decided doing so was in the best interest of its own citizens and the customers who frequent its casino and also voted to pay employees of its casinos for at least the next four weeks.

“We felt that was in the best interest of our people, staff and the general public,” Chairman Larry Wright Jr. said.

The tribe closed its office to walk-in visitors and banned all public gatherings in its facilities.

Wright said the tribes’ two clinics in Omaha and Norfolk, Nebraska, lack the ability to administer COVID-19 tests. He also said the tribe has continued to serve its elders, delivering supplies like cleaning products and food to them where possible.

While the tribe will continue providing essential services, it also plans to allow employees with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus to work from home, he said.

“We’re trying to make the best use of telecommuting where possible,” Wright told Indianz.Com.

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In northeast Nebraska, the Winnebago Tribe also has worked to prepare its people for potential outbreaks by shutting down its casino and ending all but the most essential government services for its people, said Coly Brown, the tribe’s chairman.

The tribe also shut down its pre-school program and its schools.

Brown said he is concerned about the impact that an extended closure of its casino and government offices will have on tribal employees. The casino already was forced to lay off most its workforce, and the tribe can likely only continue to pay its employees for just another two pay periods, he said.

“Then we’ll have to go into a layoff status with our tribal employees,” Brown said in an interview.

Winnebago Community - COVID-19 Weekly Update by Winnebago Public Health Department

The Winnebago Public Health Department weekly update regarding the COVID-19 virus. Also hear updates and statements from (In order of apperance) • Winnebago Public Health Administrator - Mona Zuffante • Winnebago Public Health Nursing Director - Angela Keller • Twelve Clans Unity Hospital, Chief Operating Officer – Laura Gamble • Winnebago Tribe, CEO – Esther Mercer • Winnebago Public School, Superintendent – Dan Fehringer • Winnavegas Casino, General Manager – Mayan Beltran • Winnebago Gaming Development Corporation, CEO – Brian Chamberlin • Ho-Chunk Inc., Communications Director – Sam Burrish • Winnebago Tribal Council, Vice-Chairman – John Snowball • Statement via text by Little Priest Tribal College – Manoj Patil • Twelve Clans Unity Hospital, Family Nurse Practitioner – Sara McIntosh • WCHS Communication Manager – Emilee Longuski

Posted by Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska on Thursday, March 19, 2020

In California, the Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians closed their casino and shut down all but the essential services of the tribe’s government. The tribe also decided to stop visitors from entering its convenience station, though customers can still purchase gasoline at the pumps or by cash through a window. The tribe distributed all perishable foods inside its convenience store to elders.

The tribe’s chairman, Eddie Crandell Sr., said the tribe took immediate action after learning of the threat of the coronavirus, declaring a state of emergency on March 12 and reducing its casino’s hours two days later before closing the casino down completely on March 17.

“We don’t have any cases in Lake County, but we don’t to be the cause of it for sure at the tribal level,” he said.

The tribe has continued to operate its California Tribal TANF Partnership, which Robinson Rancheria administers on behalf of 20 tribes. The program provides temporary financial assistance, as well as education training, and career and employment opportunities.

“We want to keep our people safe,” Crandell said.

He said he worries about the impact of a pandemic on his county’s medical system, which has just a handful of intensive care unit rooms.

“That’s why we’re taking it seriously as a tribe,” he said.

Posted by California Tribal TANF Partnership - Amador County, Jackson, CA on Friday, March 20, 2020

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation has taken a somewhat different approach to fighting the pandemic, choosing to keep its government operations running in order to ensure delivery of services to tribal citizens.

“I can’t in good conscience shut down programs that provide a safety net to elders and families,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told Indianz.Com.

But the tribe has shut down its casinos and hotels, leaving the future of nearly 4,000 employees in limbo, though the tribe plans to continue paying those employees for as long as possible. The tribe distributed all perishable foods from its casinos and restaurants to its citizens.

The Cherokees also shut down their schools and banned all official travel. The tribe also sent home government employees over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions, Hoskin said.

The Cherokee Nation also took the unusual step of establishing a Cherokee language hotline for its nearly 2,000 first language speakers who may be struggling to understand the potential impacts of the coronavirus.

The tribe prioritized delivery of perishable food from its casinos to nearly 75 elderly first language speakers last week and even sent Cherokee language speakers to their homes to deliver the food.

“They got something more than that,” Hoskin said. “They got a Cherokee speaker who went out and visited with them” … from a safe distance, he added.

With the largest tribally-operated healthcare system in the country, the Cherokee Nation has been working closely with federal health officials and other tribes to coordinate the delivery of funds and supplies to IHS facilities and those healthcare facilities operated by tribes.

Hoskin said its hospitals are as prepared as any tribal healthcare system to fight the coronavirus outbreak but even those hospitals are lacking the number of test kits and personal protective equipment they need to fight the pandemic.

“We’ve got a great system that is needing some resources, and we’re pushing that,” he said.

Cherokee Nation: Chief Hoskin Jr. gives a Coronavirus Update - March 12, 2020

The tribe’s healthcare system has about 400 available tests but needs more to ensure adequate testing of potentially infected citizens, Hoskin said.

On Thursday, Oklahoma announced its first COVID-19 death – Cherokee Nation citizen Merle Dry.

Hoskin said he hopes the 55-year-old man’s death will awaken all Cherokee Nation citizens to the dire threat posed by the coronavirus.

“His death makes me sad but it also emboldens me that we need to do more every single day so that the public understands the need to engage in social distancing,” he said.

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians also has shut down its casino for at least two weeks and all but the most essential of its government programs, said the tribe’s chairperson, Aaron Payment.

They join nine of Michigan’s 12 tribes in closing their casinos.

He said the tribe will continue to pay its casino staff for at least two more weeks. Some will continue to work, sanitizing the casino while it remains empty of customers.

Tribe’s emergency plan in line with Governor Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order SAULT STE. MARIE. Mich....

Posted by The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians on Monday, March 23, 2020

The tribe also has shifted to only essential services at its self-governed health center, Payment said. The Sault Ste. Marie Tribal Health Center will no longer offer regular medical or dental appointments but will offer only urgent care. He said the health center also is seeking to acquire virus test kits from state officials in Michigan.

“We have a good relationship with governor,” he said. “We’ll be able to get people tested as necessary.”

The tribe also has canceled all community events. Payment said he’s concerned about the virus’s impact on the tribe’s efforts to revive its culture and honor its deceased as funeral ceremonies won’t be able to be held according to the tribe’s customs.

He said the tribe can withstand only about two weeks of closure at its casino before it will have to start making difficult decision.

“It is painful because 100 percent of our net revenue from our casinos goes for services,” he said.

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Government funding accounts for just 40 percent of the tribe’s revenue. The rest mainly comes from casino revenue, Payment said.

“When we are shut down, that interrupts our revenue stream,” he said.

He said it will be vital for tribal casinos to receive a share of any employment relief that Congress approves, considering Indian casinos are some of the largest and best employers in their regions.

“We’ve survived Andrew Jackson and we’ve survived smallpox, not without great casualties to our people, but we are resilient people,” Payment said. “We’ve been here forever. We’ll be here forever.”

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