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Eddie Chuculate

Special to Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS – Although Native Americans have so far escaped the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota, a dire forecast for June has housing, health care and homeless advocates preparing for the worst.

As of May 15, American Indians and Alaska Natives accounted for only 100 of 14,240 positive cases statewide, for 0.0073 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

But an increase is expected. One model tracked by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows coronavirus deaths in Minnesota reaching 117 per day during the last week of June, then tapering to 60 a day by the first week of August. By comparison, 20 died on May 15.

Minnesota’s stay-at-home order ends May 18, and small retailers can resume business. On June 1, restaurants and bars may reopen.

This easing of restrictions will result in more cases and more fatalities, experts say. A near doubling of deaths from the current 683 statewide on May 15 is predicted by the end of June.

With one of the United States’ densest populations of urban Natives, and a spike encroaching, Minneapolis Indian clinics and health care professionals are preparing.

In conjunction with the Mayo Clinic, headquartered in Rochester with facilities also in Minneapolis, the Native American Community Clinic is administering 15 to 20 nasal swab tests a day at its south Minneapolis facility in the heart of the Native urban neighborhood.

Staff there initially performs a telephone screening, said Antony Stately, Oneida/Ojibwe, the clinic’s chief executive officer.

“If they’re positive, we make a recommendation they quarantine for 14 days minimum,” he said. “We work with them to teach them how to social distance if they live in a home, how to protect themselves and their family members.”

Antony Stately, Minneapolis Native American Community Clinic executive director (Courtesy NACC)

The Native American Community Clinic, with a staff of 85, survived a scare of its own when an employee tested positive for the virus, forcing the clinic to shut down for two weeks and implement telehealth measures. It is now fully reopened, but 90 percent of visits are done remotely, said Stately, 57.

Stately said the clinic monitors those who have tested positive via telehealth and if their condition regresses, they are referred to Hennepin County Medical Center, or other facilities, for treatment.

Located only a half-mile away, the Indian Health Board was the first Indian health center in Minneapolis and sees 4,800 Native patients a year. It provides walk- or drive-up COVID-19 testing on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 4 p.m. for patients who have passed phone screening. Results are usually available within 48 hours over phone or video.

Both clinics are limiting on-site visits and encouraging telehealth visits and screenings. The Indian Health Board is seeing dental patients only for emergencies.

“IHB continues to provide health care needs that are vital to the ongoing needs of the community we serve,” Chief Executive Patrick Rock said in statement. “We will navigate any new or changing health and wellness concerns that come up.”

Urban housing readies for pandemic

At Little Earth of United Tribes housing, perhaps the country’s densest urban Native living situation, community members have already felt the pandemic’s effects.

Many in Native housing suffer from underlying conditions: asthma, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, any of which can hamper the body’s autoimmune system.

Founded in 1973 and considered a model for urban Native housing in the U.S., Little Earth has 212 units ranging from one-bedroom units to townhomes stretching over three apartment complexes on Cedar Avenue, a main thoroughfare in south Minneapolis.

Although 500 people from 39 tribes are on leases, the actual population could easily exceed 1,000 because of extended families, said Jessica Rousseau, Cheyenne River Sioux, executive director of the Little Earth Residents Association.

Jessica Rousseau, executive director of the Little Earth Residents Association, Minneapolis (Courtesy of Little Earth of United Tribes)
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The pandemic has had a domino effect on the Little Earth community. Half are 18 or younger, and most of those are students. They depended on breakfasts and lunches provided by schools, which were shut down for the school year due to the coronavirus.

So Little Earth staff networked to arrange meal drop-offs from donors throughout the Twin Cities, including meals from the Minneapolis American Indian Center’s Gatherings Café.

After a food-buying panic hit, residents who were waiting on checks found shelves bare by the time they received funding, Rousseau said. A shortage of toilet paper had residents using tissues or paper towels, which clogged septic systems.

Amid distance learning, not all households were equipped with computers, laptops or tablets, and Wi-Fi can be spotty in the community, Rosseau said.

Two annual powwows – Mother’s Day in May and one in June honoring recent graduates, considered a huge stepping-stone in Little Earth – were canceled, Rousseau said. Events and programs for elders had to be discontinued. Sports and gatherings on the playgrounds stopped.

And in November, thieves stole the catalytic converters and copper wiring from vans used to transport children to school and elderly to the market and doctor appointments, rendering them inoperable.

“This all has taken its toll,” said Rousseau, 38. “But we’re resilient and stronger than what it may look to the outside eye. … We don’t see homeless people. We see relatives taking care of relatives in times of need.”

She said the community – 95 percent of which is single-parent with women being the primary caretaker – is considering a virtual powwow and a social-distancing parade to honor grads. They’re also stepping up sanitizing measures in housing and handing out masks made by residents.

“We’re encouraging our residents to go get tested to dispel their fear,” Rousseau said. “They’ve taken the initiative to protect their friends and neighbors – our job is to get them what they need. … We have our work cut out for us.”

Native homeless are vulnerable

Other urban Natives who are vulnerable during the pandemic are the homeless. Some are addicted to drugs or alcohol or may have underlying health conditions that go untreated.

“Trying to get someone addicted to fentanyl or heroin to self-isolate for 14 days – good luck,” said Michael Goze, Ho-Chunk, director of the American Indian Housing Development Corporation in Minneapolis.

Micheal Goze, director of American Indian Housing Development Corporation, Minneapolis. (Courtesy Michael Goze)

The organization has erected a hygiene center in south Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood, near the Minneapolis American Indian Center, where people can shower and get masks, gloves and sanitizer. They can also log on to Wi-Fi, charge phones and obtain new socks or underwear.

Numerous Natives have joined a homeless camp about a mile away near Hiawatha Avenue and 26th Street. Goze has sent outreach workers from the American Indian Housing Development Corporation to the camp to provide medical and other supplies and help getting off the streets.

“We did a survey,” said Goze, who’s in his 12th year as director and lives in the neighborhood. “About 70 to 80 percent of them choose to be outdoors, not due to a lack of availability (of housing) – a lot of Natives just don’t like shelters. And living in a tent in the city isn’t a picnic. You’d be better off camping in the woods.”

From left, David Goodman, Leech Lake, Michael Goze, Ho-Chunk, and Frank Downwind, Red Lake, of the American Indian Housing Development Corporation, hang a sign at the hygiene center at Bloomington Avenue and 23rd Street in Minneapolis on May 15. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)

At the American Indian Housing Development Corporation’s housing and drop-in centers, clients’ temperatures are taken as a coronavirus screening measure. If their temps are above 100.4, they are asked to isolate in their rooms or are not admitted to drop-in centers. Some are referred to hospitals.

“All we can do is try to give as much safety as we can with the masks and hygiene and handwashing” Goze said. “But the populations we deal with, their behaviors don’t lend themselves to social distancing. We provide the guidance, but if people don’t abide (by the coronavirus-prevention guidelines), it’ll just get worse.”

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Eddie Chuculate, Creek/Cherokee, is a writer based in Minneapolis. @eddie_chuculate;