Tribes Expect Little Help in Fight to Protect Elders From Coronavirus

By: - March 19, 2020 12:00 am

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SEATTLE — When a resident of the Tulalip Tribe here in western Washington tested positive for coronavirus, Chairwoman Teri Gobin quickly let her people know the tribe’s priority in limiting the spread. 

“Our Elders are the most vulnerable,” Gobin said in a video address. “The important thing is to make sure that our Elders are OK.” (In many Native communities, “Elder” is an official title.)

The tribe, whose reservation is north of Seattle, had already closed its senior center, and is limiting access to its Elders’ home. The individual who tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the latest coronavirus, self-reported last week and “isolated immediately” after limited contact, the tribe said.

As tribes across the country take steps to fight the spread of the coronavirus, they’re doing so mindful that the virus has proven especially dangerous to the elderly, a venerated group in many Native communities.

In her address, Gobin urged Tulalip members to look after the needs of Elders “so they don’t have to be in the public, because they are the most at-risk.” 

Dean Seneca, an epidemiologist who spent years working for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support, said that is exactly the response he would expect in Indian Country. 

“If [the coronavirus] were to get into a bingo hall in a tribal community or a casino hall, it could be devastating for small communities,” said Seneca, a member of the Seneca Nation who now runs his own private firm. “Our Elders in many cases keep the oral traditions alive, they keep the culture going, they share a ton of information. They’re at the forefront of providing guidance to our young people.”

Adults older than 60 face the highest risk from a coronavirus infection, including greater mortality rates, according to the CDC.

John Okemah, the Tulalip Tribe’s chief medical officer, said officials are working to limit exposure to Elders, while explaining to older members why the precautions are in place.

Okemah spoke with Stateline one day before the tribe announced its positive case, but he was already worried about what might happen if the disease made its way into the tribal community, citing long testing delays and other concerns.

“If we have a case that does turn positive and we have to wait seven to eight days [for results], they’ve already exposed 10 people, then we have a mini epidemic,” he said. “My biggest concern is if we get one positive case, in most tribes around this country, you have families living in close proximity. By the time we get one household case, it’s going to skyrocket.”

The tribe has since published an account of a Tulalip family that is recovering from the virus, but no further cases have been reported.

The Seattle Indian Health Board, which runs an urban clinic that treats predominantly Native Americans and Alaska Natives, has been hit hard by the crisis. It’s had to cut back on many services.

But it’s continuing its Elders program, which provides food and resources, as well as cultural and social programs. About 75 people use the program each day. 

“Forty percent of our Elders are homeless, and if they don’t have a place to come here to get a warm meal, then where are they going to go?” said Esther Lucero, the board’s CEO. “You’re making a decision of having them socially isolate under a bridge versus coming here and getting a warm meal and potentially being screened.”

The board is screening all Elders who come in, providing exams and distributing food in grocery bags instead of cooked meals.

Just south of Seattle, the Puyallup Tribe has closed its senior facility, the House of Respect Residence, to visitors. Elders have been urged to remain at home, while the lunch program usually hosted at the center will provide takeout sack lunches. The tribe also is looking to provide alternate working conditions for the Elders it employs.

South of Olympia, the Chehalis Tribe closed its Elder Center and is replacing the facility’s nutrition program with home-delivered meals. Tribes around the country are taking similar measures, while also seeking to meet cultural challenges. 

“One challenge that we’re faced with right now is communicating with the elderly population and trying to explain what the virus is,” said Jared Touchin, communications director for the Navajo Nation, whose reservation spreads across parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

“It’s difficult to translate these complicated health terms,” he said. “We’re trying to provide information in the Navajo language as well as written materials to reach elderly population.”

The Navajo word for coronavirus, according to a tribal press release, is “Diko Ntsaaígíí-Náhást’éíts’áadah.”

A Navajo tribal member tested positive for the virus Tuesday, the Nation’s first known case.

The Navajo Nation, along with others like the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, has placed travel restrictions on tribal employees and discouraged visitors.

The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma canceled events and is asking its Elders to avoid crowds and large gatherings, said Julie Hubbard, the tribe’s executive director of communications.

Sovereign Nations Prepare

Tribes have advantages as well as challenges in responding to the pandemic. Most tribes lack sprawling bureaucracies that can slow response to a crisis. Small leadership councils often are able to meet and act quickly, tribal officials said, unlike state legislatures, which must convene scores of members from a wide geographic region. 

“We’re everything under one roof,” said Chuck Sams, communications director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “We’re the federal, state, county and local government. Our systems are more streamlined, so we’re able to move a little more quickly.”

Earlier this month, an employee at a casino operated by the Oregon tribe tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting a temporary closure and cleaning of the facility. Sams said the tribe has taken measures such as restricting travel. 

Many tribes have closed their casinos and other public facilities in recent days. The Native gaming industry is asking the federal government for billion in aid. Most tribes do not collect income or property taxes, and revenue from tribal enterprises like casinos and hotels pays for essential services like health and education.

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.