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Native American Tribes Respond to Pandemic With Limited Resources

While the Oglala Sioux tribe tries to educate its communities about hand-washing during the pandemic, many members don't have consistent access to running water to protect themselves. (Adobe Stock)
While the Oglala Sioux tribe tries to educate its communities about hand-washing during the pandemic, many members don't have consistent access to running water to protect themselves. (Adobe Stock)
April 6, 2020

PINE RIDGE, S.D. -- Native American tribes are restricting access to reservations, while trying to increase limited supplies as the coronavirus spreads in the U.S.

The Oglala Sioux tribe has the largest reservation in South Dakota with nearly 50,000 members. It has set up checkpoints to limit non-essential visits from non-residents.

Tyler Yellow Boy, the tribe's ambulance director and pandemic task force member, says the tribe has no reported cases yet of COVID-19 and hopes to keep it that way.

But he says the pandemic could have a devastating impact if things change.

"Our population is probably the most vulnerable due to our underlying health conditions such as diabetes and heart-related issues," he states.

Yellow Boy says many of the tribe's members are elderly, creating more health risks. He adds the tribe only has a handful of ventilators and beds at its main hospital.

The tribe has made requests through the state for additional supplies. Yellow Boy recently received some gear, but he describes the overall attempt to bolster the stockpile as "difficult."

On the national level, concerns have been raised over the slow pace of getting emergency federal funds to tribes. Local leaders have been in contact with attorneys in Washington in hopes of speeding up the aid.

The Oglala tribe has enacted a shelter-in-place order, while establishing curfews. And Yellow Boy says the tribe is getting safety messages out on local radio and social media.

But for those who might not have access to platforms, local officials are getting creative.

"President Bear Runner and myself, and a few others, they hooked up a P.A. system behind a pick-up and I ran with my sirens on and went to communities -- turned the sirens on so everybody would come out of their homes and they would listen to what was coming through the P.A.," he relates.

And while tribes try to educate the public and gather resources, many also are seeking donations since casino revenue -- which funds essential services -- is being impacted by the shutdown of public activity.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - SD