Jourdan Bennett-Begaye
Indian Country Today

It was another day for Chuck Sams III as the communications director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Then there was an alert that a staff member at the tribal casino was sick.

That was the moment, a year ago today, when the coronavirus pandemic first surfaced in Indian Country, the first case in a tribal nation, according to Indian Country Today’s database.

Sams was suddenly the tribe’s incident commander.

It was Oregon’s third presumptive positive case of the virus. A few days prior the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first U.S. death caused by COVID-19. The tribe had been watching the pandemic unfold around the world and received reports since February. Even though the individual was non-Native and was treated at a non-Indian Health Service facility, it set off the alarm for Indian Country.

Sams remembers that day.

“We were on a management team retreat in Walla Walla, Washington, and immediately recalled everybody back to the home office on the reservation and met with the board of trustees and initiated our emergency operating plan,” he told Indian Country Today.

In 2016 the tribe adopted the operating plan that covered everything from mass configuration to fires and earthquakes, and “even pandemics.” Sams needed to do more research on the medical emergencies section.

He turned to the Catholic church records housed at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Oregon. “Fortunately, the Catholic church keeps very good records,” he said.

The two churches on the reservation documented infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics, like measles and mumps, that entered the territory, including the Spanish Flu in 1919.

“Luckily, I was able to call on several of our elders whose parents, grandparents lived during some of those times, especially the Spanish Flu,” he said.

Sams relied on the historical documents and oral histories to educate the Umatilla people that it is in their best interest to isolate. It was also “genetic memory,” he said.

“That’s what kept us alive. It was what kept that 5 percent of our people alive during those major pandemics that wiped out 95 percent of us,” he said referring to the major epidemics that came through between 1780 and 1860. “It wasn’t because you were smarter than anyone. It wasn’t because you had stronger genes. It’s because you are able to isolate for whatever reason.”

It’s also on record that the Spanish Flu that hit the reservation hit children. The tribe’s agency cemetery holds mostly young people who died in 1919 and 1920 from the flu.

A resolution was presented immediately to the board of trustees, the tribe’s governing body, to implement the emergency operating plan. This meant all emergency decisions were placed in the hands of professionals and out of the elected officials. Once passed, Sams set up an entire command system; he gathered the appropriate medical, social work, public works, enterprise and facilities staff, and the executive director to formulate a plan.

They still didn’t fully understand the virus or what was going on.

But they enacted what they knew. So they reactivated the emergency operations center just used a month before for the floods.

Part of Indian Country Today’s report that day: “The tribe’s Nixyaawii Community School, Head Start, Daycare and Senior Center will be temporarily closed to sanitize starting today at 12 p.m. local time. ‘All community events on the Umatilla Indian Reservation are cancelled for the week of March 2 to 8, 2020.’”

The tribe had a 26-member incident team in place 10 days later.

Around the same time, Sams’ oldest daughter, who was 20 at the time, contracted the virus in southern California. She was a student at Harvey Mudd College.

“Fortunately, she was a college athlete. So she had strong lungs, but you know when she called saying, ‘Dad I can't breathe,’” he said and paused over the phone. 

She couldn’t get to a medical facility and had to get a diagnosis over the phone.

“There was a point that I am not going to lie, I panicked and got up and started to get dressed and prepared to drive to go pick her up and bring her back,” he said. “But my wife reminded me that I was responsible for the lives on the reservation at that point, and figuring out what to do.”

His daughter quarantined at her aunt’s house. She is okay now, Sams said.

In the tribe’s weekly surveillance report for Feb. 19 to Feb. 25 there has been a total of 252 cases since the start of the pandemic, 13 hospitalizations, and one death on the reservation. Sams said the tribe actually lost two people to the virus, both elders. One death was a tribal citizen on the Yakama reservation. The positivity rate stands at 8.4 percent.

Cases were low on Umatilla, Sams said, from March to June. The cases started to peak around June 12. They had 17 positive cases at that point.

The tribe had the Abbott rapid testing but they didn’t have enough testing supplies until July to start testing more people. The incident command team also shrunk to 16 people by this time and Sams also took on the role of deputy executive director.

The tribe’s health center, the Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, received the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 18 from IHS. Health care workers, first responders, and tribal elders received the vaccine first. Essential staff personnel of the tribal government and those with underlying health conditions followed. It then opened up to any tribal citizens age 16 and older at the beginning of February.

All 3,146 tribal citizens were informed by mail of the vaccine.

“We sent them each a mailer or to their parents saying that the vaccine is available if they want it. No matter where you live, if you want to, come home and get it. You will get it,” he said. The tribe is gathering the data to see how many people came home outside a 50-mile radius to get the vaccine. He knows several folks who traveled more than 400 miles to Umatilla to get vaccinated.

Sam’s daughter flew back to the reservation for her vaccine like many Native people across the country are doing. She received her first dose last week and is going to fly back in three weeks to receive her second dose. His family — wife and three of four children —is vaccinated. His 7-year-old isn’t eligible. “For the first time in a year, I had all of my children and my wife under one roof for two days,” he said.

As of Feb. 26, there are a total of 2,100 people who have been vaccinated, according to the tribe’s data. This includes 1,053 series in progress and 1,047 who have been fully vaccinated. 

Vaccine distribution chart from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation's COVID-19 Weekly Surveillance Summary for the week of Feb. 19 to Feb. 25. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Sams III)

By mid-February, the tribe included non-Native people who worked for the tribal government and enterprises, and then non-Native families or tribal citizens who have non-Native family members.

The tribe administered a mass vaccination the last week of February to non-Natives who lived on the reservation and any contractors or vendors.

Oregon National Guard troops were on site to help with the vaccination and administration process, the second time in history that the tribe has had the military on the reservation. The first time was 25 years ago when the Army Corps of Engineers helped build a road.

Sams said they’ve received a large number of compliments from non-Natives who were able to get the vaccination with the tribe due to the slow rollout of the vaccine across the country.

The Umatilla’s quick vaccine rollout backs up Abigail Echo-Hawk’s earlier statement of tribes rolling out vaccines “better than most states and counties in the country.” Echo-Hawk is the director of the Urban Indian Health Institute.

“We have a system in place and as public health communities, I keep telling all of my friends in the state and federal levels like you should have asked an Indian. I had to do this a long time ago,” she said.

She credited Native communities already knowing how to communicate with their people, which Sams agrees with. He also added, “We communicate quickly to our non-Indians who are friends.”

“We want to help, don't get me wrong, there is an altruistic value that we want to help anybody we can, that is something we were brought up with,” he said. “We still see everyone as our guests. Regardless of how you got here, this is our homeland and we want to protect you in our homeland and in our surrounding homelands.”

But there’s also “a little bit of selfishness there,” he said. “Because we want you to continue to be able to work and interact with us and the only way we can feel safe is knowing that you were inoculated and you knowing that we're inoculated.”

Non-Natives have expressed their gratitude to Sams and the tribe for the vaccine. Polar opposite to what is happening in some places like Alaska where non-Natives are upset that Native people are getting vaccinated quicker than they are.

“It’s an obligation and we just maybe we're just more effective,” Sams said referring to the treaty and trust obligation of the federal government to provide health care to the American Indian and Alaska Native population.

Sams looked back on the last year and unknowingly had been prepared for a pandemic response. (And also went through a series of roles for the tribes. His second role since November has been executive director.)

He attended the nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare school more than 25 years ago during his stint in the Navy as an intelligence specialist.

They learned what biological effects can happen when they are used as weapons of mass destruction, and how epidemics and pandemics work and how quickly they can spread.

“I didn’t think I’d use it,” he said.

He ended up working in New York City in the infectious disease and AIDS wards at the Lincoln Medical Center.

“So when this happened, it was a combination of figuring out how to use all of those things I’ve learned 20-plus years earlier and figured out how do we work closely with the tribal health center and how do we implement this slow, if not stop the spread of the disease,” he said.

Now tribal citizens and locals can travel freely. The tribe lifted the 75-mile travel restriction for local and tribal folks on Feb. 26 that has been in effect for several months.

“We have literally thousands of pages of information and directions and reports and we are going to do a lessons learned once this is all done,” Sams said. “And I want to make sure that we leave that information for any future generations that they run into this very similar issue so that they have a blueprint.”

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This story has been updated to show this first case on record in Indian Country is from Indian Country Today’s database. 

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