COVID-19-free tribal nations

A sign on a road onto the Blackfeet Indian Reservation states non-residents are not allowed on the reservation. It asks people passing through to wear a mask if they stop on the reservation. The tribe has set a curfew of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and anyone returning to the reservation must self quarantine for 14 days. (Photo courtesy of Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command).

Joaqlin Estus

’We have one objective … to protect human lives’

Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

UPDATED June 26 with new information about the closure of Glacier National Park entrances on to Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Three months ago in Montana, the Blackfeet Indian Nation moved quickly to set up defenses against COVID-19.

Like the two other tribes described here, the 10,000 tribal members living on the Blackfeet reservation have no COVID-19 cases. All three of these tribes have come up with wide-ranging, sometimes creative safeguards against the infectious disease.

In mid-March the Blackfeet tribal council issued a declaration that put its emergency response plan into play. That made their emergency services director Robert DesRosier, Blackfeet, the tribe’s COVID-19 incident commander. 

A former firefighter, he’s been handling disasters such as wildfires, blizzards, floods, and now a pandemic for more than 40 years.

“We have one objective in our command plan and that's to protect human lives,” he said.

“Here's what we have: an unseen enemy,” DesRosier said, and a battle with no light at the end of the tunnel. “So we're just trying to maintain our resilience and keep this area safe. “

“We came up with some pretty strong strategy. We closed the tribe. We closed the community. We issued a stay-at-home order,” DesRosier said. “We're using hand sanitizer at every business. Mandatory for Blackfeet Nation: all residents wear masks.” The Blackfeet has closed alcohol sales on the reservation from Friday to Sunday and reduced the hours it can be sold on other days.

Residents who travel to COVID-19 “hot spots” are asked to self quarantine for 14 days. The nation allows only essential travel for food, education, medical care, and work.

Signs on roads onto the reservation state it is closed to non-residents, and ask non-residents to wear a mask if they stop on the reservation while passing through. 

Hotels and casinos, RV parks, cultural and art facilities, and restaurants, all part of a growing tourism industry, were closed. 

DesRosier said the tribe has removed maybe half a dozen non-residents from campgrounds, telling them they need to move. “You know, preferably off the reservation. It's not that you're not welcome. It's just that you just have to make other arrangements. And so we haven't allowed the RBOs [rentals by owner] to open either,” DesRosier said.

On June 26, the Blackfeet Nation announced it is closing entrances to Glacier National Park, which borders the reservation's western boundaries.

Local businesses will be deeply affected by the absence of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who would normally pass through. Many of the local businesses earn most of their annual income during the summer months when tourists pour through the reservation to the park.

One of the challenges for the Blackfeet is that its reservation is crisscrossed by multiple roads that lead to communities where COVID-19 is on the loose.

“Montana has really escalated in cases since the governor went to phase two and relaxed a lot of their phase one requirements. And what we're seeing in the last week is that the positive corona cases have just shot up in the state of Montana,” DesRosier said.

People may be drawn back out into the world for good reason, say to care for others or earn money, or to simply to fulfill the human need for social engagement. But acting public information officer, Eileen Henderson, Blackfeet, said a couple of early off-reservation cases, including one death, brought home the seriousness of the risk.

The history of the Blackfeet is also a factor.

Since non-Natives’ arrival on the continent, tribes have experienced the loss of thousands of tribal citizens in epidemics of tuberculosis, influenza and whooping cough. “We had the smallpox epidemics, you know, two, three hundred years ago. We had the big flu epidemic a hundred years ago. So … we definitely have [disease] in our history,” DesRosier said.

And the tribe wants to protect what’s precious: Elders. “Where our populations are the most vulnerable, you know, our elders are keepers of the culture, of the faith you might call it here, and we can't afford to lose any,” DeRosier said.

He said, “Blackfeet Nation is still virus free and we're going to hopefully keep it that way. And so we're maintaining our closure orders plan … everything we've put in place, we're not going to budge.”

He said orders remain in effect through June 30. While public safety is paramount, Henderson said council members will be weighing that against the economic fallout. 

In the tribe's announcement on Facebook about the closure of entrances to the park, tribal Business Council member Mark Pollock said leaders "know, understand, and appreciate the hardships" of the closure and other measures taken to protect the tribe from COVID-19. 

"And the thing is," he said, "is that it's working. It is. Thank God."

Makah: ‘They do not want to lose one life to COVID-19’

Another tribe worried about economic fallout is the Makah, in Washington state. Normally this time of year, the 200 boat slips at the tribe’s marina would be filling up with fishing boats. Thousands of sports fishermen show up. And commercial fishermen land some $6.5 to $7 million worth of fish. Tribal chair T.J. Greene, Makah, told KUOW’s John Ryan COVID-related fishing closures are hurting locals.

“We are a fishing community. That's the main source of income for the Makah tribe, for Neah Bay,” Greene said.

About 1,500 Makah people live on the tribe’s reservation, which is located on a peninsula 156 miles northwest of Seattle. The reservation, for the most part, can be closed off to the outside. It is accessible by boats coming in from the sea but has only one road in and out.

“Our biggest advantage is being so remote and being able to control the border,” said Dr. Libby Cope, health officer and director of the Makah Tribe’s Sophie Trettevick Indian Health Center. “So, right away, the council made the decision on March 16th to close our border to non-residents.”

The tribe also pushed to influence decision-making over access by water. The state closed nearby fishing areas but was considering reopening them, which would have brought increased boat traffic to the reservation.

“When our council heard about that, we called them right away and said, ‘Hey, don't open that because we're not ready.” Boats break down, said Cope. Or boaters may ignore directions to stay away and show up at the tribe’s dock at Neah Bay. The state kept most of the nearby fishing areas closed.

Like the Blackfeet, the Makah are losing revenue. The marina, a resort, numerous hotels and restaurants were all closed, along with beaches and trails.

Cope said balancing the mental and physical toll of social isolation with the risk of infectious disease is tricky. But for the Makah, history tipped the scale toward caution.

Among other waves of disease, an 1852 epidemic stands out for its devastation and searing consequences for the Makah.

That year, smallpox killed as much as 90 percent of the Makah people.

Just three years later tribal leaders negotiated a treaty in which the Makah ceded title to 470 square miles of tribal land to the United States in exchange for whaling and fishing rights, education, and health care. Today the tribe has 47 square miles of land.

“So I think that history, and then, really, our council when they're thinking about policies for this area, they're talking and thinking about their family,” Cope said. “And for them, they've decided very concretely that they do not want to lose one life to COVID-19. So that approach has been, I think, very meaningful and meant that we really have to prevent disease spread.”

Cope said the nation “has taken it pretty seriously to not leave the community unless they have to for medical or for food reasons. We do have a general store and a lot of people have really transitioned some of their food shopping to our general store here, but there are a number of people who do still leave the reservation. And I think a lot of them are taking the recommended precautions.”

She said it’s not mandatory but the tribe has asked anyone who visits high risk areas, to voluntarily self quarantine.

“At this point, we're transitioning from what is allowed, and we're kind of relaxing a little bit at some of our shelter-in-place orders,” Cope said. She said that puts more responsibility on individuals, which brings new questions.

“I think that a lot of people, now that they don't have that [the rules] to guide them, it's forcing them to think about, like… ‘am I allowed to spend the night off the reservation?’

“And so it's not about whether or not you're allowed to, it's whether or not wherever you are going to spend the night is safe and you're following the precautions wherever you're going. And that when you come back, you also follow precautions here,” Cope said.

Nulato: ‘it’s just getting out of hand’

The Native Village of Nulato, Koyukon Athabascan, is located on the Yukon River in Interior Alaska. Like the Blackfeet and Makah, Nulato has not had a single case of COVID-19. The village of 270 people is accessible only by boat or plane.

However, not everyone in Nulato was doing everything possible to stay safe from the coronavirus, said City Administrator Violet Kruger, Athabascan.

She’s one of the eight local officials serving on a local COVID-19 task force. The group includes representatives of the tribe, city, health clinic, and a city-owned business, as well as the sole tribal police officer.

This flyer is posted around Nulato to let everyone know the penalties for violating quarantine. Because the city of Nulato owns the "L" (liquor) store, it's using it to help enforce safety recommendations. The store will stop selling to anyone violating quarantine. (Screen shot of Facebook post).
This flyer is posted around Nulato to let everyone know the penalties for violating quarantine. Because the city of Nulato owns the "L" (liquor) store, it's using it to help enforce safety recommendations. The store will stop selling to anyone violating quarantine. (Screen shot of Facebook post).

Kruger said as several disease-free weeks went by, a few returning travelers, who are supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days, became a problem.

“We had people not following the rules of the quarantine,” she said.

So the village task force came up with penalties. “The first fine is $250. The second is $500, and the third is removal from the village,” Kruger said.

She said the one person who has been fined $250 had just flown in from 300 miles away. “The city that they were traveling from was Fairbanks and that was a hot spot for a while. And since the state kind of opened up, the cases are going up now. So we're taking it pretty seriously.”

Kruger said task force members have been under increasing pressure. “We're getting calls every day, piled up with calls, ‘this person went into this person's house.’ So it's just getting too out of hand.”

Joking about the inability of officials to police everyone’s every move, she said, “We’re miracle workers, I guess.”

So the task force is sending a letter to Nulato residents to ask them to share the burden, reminding them that everyone is responsible for the community’s safety.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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