Tribes take measures to slow spread of new coronavirus

Tuesday, March 24, 2020
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AP

This photo shows Monument Valley, Utah.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Sharon Bahe has made her home on the Navajo Nation a refuge, placing cedar branches and burning sage to help purify the space and praying for protection for herself and her children home from boarding school and a toddler with severe asthma.

Her community of about 500 in northern Arizona has become a hot spot for the new coronavirus, with several cases confirmed. While other kids play outside, she tells hers they can’t “until the virus goes away.”

Officials on the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation, on Friday broadened a stay-at-home order from Chilchinbeto to the entire reservation: No visitors in, and residents can’t leave their homes except for essential tasks, including to get food and medical supplies. 

The order is among the strictest yet in Indian Country, though tribes across the U.S. for weeks have been preparing amid worries that the outbreak could quickly overwhelm a chronically underfunded health care system and affect a population that suffers disproportionately from cancer, diabetes and some respiratory diseases. 

They’ve shut down casinos, hotels and tourist destinations — often their primary revenue sources — and reminded citizens of the resiliency of their ancestors.

“Tribes are really just big families in a lot of ways,” said Matthew Fletcher, a law professor at Michigan State University. “The threats to your family are something you’re going to take seriously.”

Tribal elders, revered for their knowledge and cultural guidance, are the biggest concern, and outreach and other efforts are underway on the Navajo Nation, which spans three states in the U.S. Southwest. Many families there live miles apart in homes that hold multiple generations but can lack electricity, running water and reliable internet. 

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. But for the elderly and people with existing conditions, it can cause more severe illness. The vast majority of those who are infected recover.

A federal funding package in response to the virus included $40 million for tribes for epidemiology, public health preparedness, infection control, education and other things. 

But the money hasn’t reached tribes because there’s no mechanism for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get it to the Indian Health Service, the agency responsible for providing primary medical care to Native Americans. Tribes and tribal organizations run some hospitals and clinics under federal contract. 

“Everyone is on high alert right now. They’re waiting, they’re asking us,” said Stacy Bohlen, executive director of the National Indian Health Board who is from the Sault Sainte Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

In the meantime, tribes are taking action to slow the spread of the virus. 

In South Dakota, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner prohibited church groups from bringing volunteers to help repair homes on tribal land. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe canceled about 300 spring turkey and prairie dog hunting permits for non-tribal members.

In Montana, the Northern Cheyenne and the Crow tribes enacted a 10 p.m. curfew, partly to ensure law enforcement isn’t bogged down, and restricted movement on and off their land. They also asked residents who attended hugely popular basketball tournaments off the reservation to self-quarantine.

The Bay Mills Indian Community has special hours for the elderly at a grocery store on the densely populated reservation in northern Michigan and a gas station with full service to limit exposure to the pumps, said tribal Chairman Bryan Newland.

It also is among tribes nationwide that have closed casinos and is paying its 400 employees. 

The National Indian Gaming Association has asked Congress for at least $18 billion in federal aid over six months to address shortfalls from closing casinos, which tribes depend on because they don’t have a property tax base. 

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