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Healthcare

Tribal Members Say Getting Vaccinated Is About Protecting Community & Culture

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Vaccine rollout on the Rosebud Reservation is underway and Tribal members say its going well. 

There’s a generation’s-old belief Lakota share with their children.

“We're always taught culturally, to think about the collective, especially when there's a threat,” says Wayne Frederick.

“That’s essentially how we’re raised. So, although a lot of our language and our ceremonies were wiped out, we still retained our Lakota way of life. Of caring for one another because like our late Aunt Roslie Little Thunder would say, “every day, every day get up and think about what you can do for those around you. Think about the collective and how to survive.” That’s always been ingrained in us. So, when it came to this pandemic, it was no question that we were gonna do what we could,’” Alex Romero says.

Wayne Frederick and his wife, Alex Romero explain that even with mask mandates and curfews, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of many Tribal members and left many more with long term health issues.

“We were tired of burying our relatives. This has taken such a toll on our community. Right now, we’re looking at shortages of funds just to bury our relatives that have passed from COVID,” Romero says.

Nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control, “COVID-19 mortality among indigenous people was 1.8 times greater than that among non-Hispanic Whites. And the disparity in mortality compared with non-Hispanic Whites was highest among persons aged 20–49 years.” (HYPER LINK: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6949a3.htm)

Romero and Frederick say, right now, providing access to the COVID-19 vaccine is what is best to not only to care for their community but to also preserve what is left of their Lakota culture. 

 “There were 40 in November, 40 people that passed from COVID in November. It’s gone down some, but for our small community, that was a huge loss,” Romero says.

“A total on Reservation was 27. But just out of those 27 were culture and language bearers. It’s really been a blow to us, because the fact that we don’t have that many fluent speakers anymore,” Frederick says.

Working closely with Indian Health Service locally and in D.C., the Rosebud Sioux Tribe was able to secure enough vaccine for their 45,000 members. Early January they launched community-wide vaccine clinics. To date, nearly 4,000 tribal members or 8 percent have received the vaccine. The tribe’s vaccine rollout plan is far reaching, explains Frederick, a seventh-generation rancher and Tribal Council Representative who also serves on the Tribal Health Board.

“If we take care of our neighbors and ourselves, it’s a holistic approach to stopping the virus … so, we opened it up to non-members that work within the school district, in case we did look at going back into school…we looked at people that work within the stores that are non-members. We opened it up to them. We opened it up of course to non-members who are taking care of tribal members…that seemed like the most effective approach to try and contain this virus,” Frederick says.

Leading the vaccine rollout is Skyla Fast Horse, health director for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. From the start, Skyla understood providing vaccine access to all community members would not be easy. To help, Skyla organizes walk-in vaccine clinics in all 20 rural communities across the Rosebud Reservation. She and her team also coordinate transportation to and from vaccine sites for those who need it.

 “My goal was to ensure that we were able to reach out to those communities, by going to the communities that are so far spread out,” Fast Horse says.

Vaccine access is not the only challenge. Building trust in its safety has also been important. 

 “We have some reluctance out there from our people, but I let them know, I took it,” Fast Horse says.

In addition to setting an example, the Health Administration works to spread awareness about vaccine safety through public service announcements, newspaper articles and social media posts. Some Council members even posted Facebook Live videos as they got their vaccine.

Just last week Wayne, Alex and their teenage daughter, Summer were among a large group of community members to receive their second vaccine dose. Alex says as she waited at the vaccine clinic with her community, she could almost feel the peace of mind receiving the vaccine brings.

“We were all waiting, like holding our breath collectively, and now we can finally let it out,” Romero says.

When visiting with friends and family concerned about getting the vaccine, Alex says she shares science-based information and reminds community members that getting the vaccinate is the right thing to do for the health and safety of the entire community.