New Mexico circulates broad tribal preparedness guide

Aliyah Chavez

Tribal leaders in New Mexico collaborate to create sweeping coronavirus document

The coronavirus does not select who it infects, which is why New Mexico’s Indian Affairs Department did not wait to create a guidebook for local tribal leaders.

The “Tribal Response Plan COVID-19” includes guidance on everything from holding funerals to restricting access to tribal lands.

“In this incredibly profound, challenging and unprecedented emergency, we knew we needed to bring the brightest minds together to give our leaders the latest knowledge about the pandemic,” said Regis Pecos, Cochiti Pueblo. He is one of many Native professionals and experts who weighed in on the document.

Pecos is a former governor of Cochiti Pueblo and longtime tribal leader in New Mexico. To his knowledge, no other states have created a coronavirus guide for tribal communities “to this degree and magnitude.”

Previously, there was no place to turn for resources tailored to protecting New Mexico’s tribal communities, some of which have already been hard-hit. There are guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and various health departments – but those don’t always speak to values specific to Native families.

(Related: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus)

“This document was offered in the spirit of trying to help,” said Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo, Sandia Pueblo. “As Native people we always ask: ‘How can I help? What do you need?’ This was meant as an offer of help in that way.” 

The document includes how a tribal nation can isolate those who are confirmed positive and how to restrict access to their tribal lands. It also offers tips on what to do if a community member dies from the virus.

“The plan is not meant to dictate to our tribal communities what their individual response should look like,” Trujillo said. “But we heard that there was a need for information and for some kind of guidance to be put out there. We respect tribal sovereignty.”

New Mexico is home to 19 pueblos nations, part of the Navajo Nation and two Apache nations. The plan was sent to these communities Wednesday night.

New Mexico’s first case of COVID-19 was reported March 11. Since then, the virus has spread quickly in tribal communities.

The Navajo Nation, which also extends into Arizona and Utah, had 488 confirmed cases as of Wednesday evening.

Earlier this week, San Felipe Pueblo reported 52 of its residents with confirmed cases. Zia Pueblo had 31. In Zuni Pueblo, a tribal member died Sunday as a result of contracting the virus.

 (Related: Two pueblos have some of the highest infection rates in US)

One of the hardest sections to craft was how to care for a deceased person who tested positive, Trujillo said.

“How do we continue to respect our ways as Native people while social distancing?” she said.

The guidebook says to treat all deceased bodies as if they are a positive-tested person at this time. Research shows the virus can be transmitted through a deceased body.

Funerals are different for every tribal nation, though many include home visits and large community feeds.

“These ordinarily harmless ceremonies are now considered mass gatherings under Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham’s COVID-19 Stay-At-Home-Order,” the guidebook says. “They can be unsafe for the deceased’s family, mourners and tribal members. It is recommended that Tribes follow the state’s Stay-At-Home Order and restrictions on community gatherings.”

For the family members who do pay their respects, they recommend wearing disposable gloves, masks and eye shields when in direct contact with the deceased.

“If this helps save someone’s life, that is all we want. That is our duty,” Trujillo said. “I want everyone to know during this time that they are not alone.”

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com

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