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Tribal leaders discuss pandemic’s impact on hard-hit Indian Country

Clockwise, Kevin DuPuis, chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa; Devon Haynie, U.S. News World & Report assistant managing editor; Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez; and Stacy A. Bohlen, chief executive officer of the National Indian Health Board and member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians participate in a webinar Nov. 9 to discuss how tribes are handling the pandemic. (Courtesy image)

Covid-19 is running rampant across the globe and, as of late November, nearly 60 million cases worldwide and 10 million cases in the U.S. have been reported.

Indian Country has not been spared.

Native Americans are 5.3 times more likely than white people to be hospitalized with Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Native communities have mobilized in the battle against the virus.

A group of tribal leaders gathered Nov. 9 for a webinar on Covid-19 and Native American health, which was convened and moderated by U.S. News & World Report as part of its Community Health Leadership Forum.
Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation president; Stacy A. Bohlen, chief executive officer of the National Indian Health Board; and Kevin DuPuis, chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota, shared their strategies of how their tribes have handled the pandemic.

“The virus penetrated Indian Country disproportionately because of the direct results of colonization and underfunding of the Indian Health Service,” said Bohlen (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians). “It’s no surprise that it hit our people the hardest.”

Bohlen said that multiple generations often live together in the same house, which makes social distancing nearly impossible. She cited the vast numbers of people in Alaska and on the Navajo Reservation who don’t have running water and can’t wash their hands often.

“This is a problem that can be solved with the political and public will to solve it,” Bohlen said. “It can save many lives, not just during the Covid era, but in everyday life.”

On the Navajo Reservation, the most vulnerable population suffers from diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. Nez said his people got hit hard, but they have been carefully following recommendations from public health experts.

The Navajo Nation has tested about half of its citizens – more than nearly every state – and utilized its ability to govern themselves. Masks were mandated in April; curfews and lockdowns followed. Nez said communication with tribal members is one reason there was no resistance to the policies.

“Since time immemorial, we all have stories passed down from generation to generation about monsters,” he said. “Now we have Covid-19. We framed it in a way to be a warrior. What is the armor you need to wear and what is the weapon you need to fight this? The armor is the mask and the weapon is following the guidelines.”

So far during the pandemic the Navajo Nation has tested about 151,000 people with nearly 19,0000 being positive. According to the Navajo Times, as of Nov. 25 at least 638 people have died on the Navajo Nation from the coronavirus and recoveries are at 8,271.

“People just need to wear masks,” Nez said. “It’s about taking care of those you love around you.”

DuPuis established a state of emergency with 12 other tribes in Minnesota on March 13 and shut down the casinos.

“We look at our teachings and stories and the past,” DuPuis said. “It took only one blanket infected with smallpox to wipe out a community.”

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa was prepared for the shockwave that came with the pandemic. Three-quarters of the tribe lives off the reservation and a lot of those members wanted to come home. There are also non-Indigenous people living with and near the tribe.

“It’s everywhere. Can we stop it?” DuPuis asked rhetorically. “Probably not, but we can try to control it so it doesn’t affect our elder population, our storytellers, those who carry our history. If we lose an elder, it’s like a library burning down. We are an oral teaching people and we need to pass down our stories. We protect the unborn to make sure our people will continue.”

With resorts near the reservation, many visitors flocked to the area for the fishing and other activities as businesses in the state reopened. The Fond du Lac Band used social media, newspapers and public service announcements on the radio to communicate the tribe’s stringent safety measures to people who don’t live on or near the reservation.

“With all the medical disparities we have, it makes sense to wear a mask all the time,” DuPuis said. “Wearing a mask is about protecting someone else, the other human being. There is only one race of people, the human race. We need to protect all.”

DuPuis said the CARES Act from the federal government, which earmarked $8 billion in Covid-related funding for Indian Country, needed to be dispersed quicker and more efficiently.

“The money helped, but there are too many restrictions,” he said. “No other community has to put up with being told how to spend the money from the government. We are sovereign governments and they should give us direct funding. When will they recognize tribal governments as true sovereign entities? Let us determine what our need is so we can take care of our people the right way. We have been self-governing for over 528 years.”
Bohlen said it was vital to get existing programs passed and funded, such as the Indian Health Service’s Special Diabetes Program for Indians, which ends Dec. 31.

On the importance of tribes developing strong relationships with state governments, DuPuis said the leaders from the 12 nearby tribes began daily calls at the beginning of the pandemic. They communicated with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, and other state and federal partners every day. The state has an executive order for tribal consultation and there are tribal liaisons on every statewide commission.

“That relationship allowed a lot to happen in Minnesota that didn’t happen elsewhere,” DuPuis said. “The bridges we built ensured leadership had the ability to have direct contact. It paid off and showed what can be done in Indian country, but you have to be able to build that bridge. Rebuild those broken bridges, you owe it to your people.”

As for media attention, Nez reported that every national outlet came to the Navajo Reservation because it was hit so hard by the coronavirus. Some said the virus could wipe out a tribe, which was discouraging for the people, he said.

“It was like poor, poor Indians,” Nez said. “That’s why I stopped doing taped interviews. I’d rather do it live so I can get my point across. The media doesn’t talk about our determination, what we did to govern ourselves, our way of life, our teachings. Native American communities have contributed to the freedom of everyone in this country, yet we continue to be pushed aside. Now is the time for congressional leaders to understand the nation-to-nation relationship.”

Nez said while everyone else around the country received their relief funds, tribal nations had to wait.

“We took it upon ourselves to help our people,” he said. “That’s the story that should be magnified throughout the country.”

When the funding did come through, the Navajo Nation used it to repair water and electric lines for some who didn’t have either.

“This administration didn’t put aside one penny for tribes,” Nez said. “It wouldn’t have happened if our congressional leaders didn’t fight for Indian Country. They fought and got $8 billion for us.”

DuPuis said Congress made a difference for his tribe as well. He also said it’s important to learn from the ordeals created by the pandemic.

“People see a problem and go back into the woods looking for plants and medicines out there,” he said. “The pandemic is a bad thing, but we need to look for good things that come out of this. We are going back to who we are as a people and going back to our way of life. We have to carry on as a people. We need to survive and go forward. It is so important to wear the mask; it is one thing we can do to protect us and slow this down.”

From her position at the National Indian Health Board, Bohlen receives perspectives from many tribes.

“Some things Native people have are resolve, resilience, spiritual grounding and faith that make us strongest in a crisis,” she said. “I am blessed to have amazing tribal leadership around me who were steady in the storm and worked with Congress effectively to get resources for our people. President Lincoln said you find out what your character is in the worst of times. Tribal leaders listened and fought for us.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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