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How Indigenous Nations Are Vaccinating Their Communities Against COVID-19

Older patient receiving a vaccine.

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 has had a disproportionate toll on Native American communities.
  • Because every indigenous nation is autonomous and governs differently, their COVID-19 responses and vaccination efforts differ.
  • Indigenous nations are vaccinating their communities at higher rates than U.S. averages.

In November 2020, when the pandemic’s second wave hit, Kiana Beaudin, enrolled member and executive director for Ho-Chunk Nation’s Department of Health, witnessed record-high COVID-19 cases. In one day, “our record high was 99 active cases,” Beaudin tells Verywell.

Like many other indigenous nations, the Ho-Chunk Nation, also known as The People of the Sacred Voice, has centered its efforts around controlling the spread of COVID-19, a virus that has taken a disproportionate toll on the Native American community. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Native people have been infected by COVID-19 at rates 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic White people.

When testing became available, Beaudin ran two clinics to provide testing services to over 5,000 Ho-Chunk tribal members, with clinics located in Baraboo and Black River, Wisconsin. According to Beaudin, running the clinics has made COVID-19 testing and vaccination possible. “I’m beyond proud of our team," Beaudin says. "We have the capacity to vaccinate 1,000 individuals a day." So far, the nation has received Moderna vaccines and is advocating to receive doses of the Pfizer vaccine next so they can continue to vaccinate and protect their community. 

Across indigenous nations, COVID-19 vaccination has been off to a good start. Many nations are getting shots in people's arms at faster rates than U.S. averages.

Vaccination Efforts Differ by Tribe

Because all indigenous nations govern under different bylaws and constitutions, Mike DeSpain, the Chief Operating Officer of the Buena Vista Rancheria Band of Me-Wuk Indians Tribe tells Verywell that each tribe will have its own efforts.

To expedite vaccination, Beaudin shares that the Ho-Chunk Nation has taken a different approach than most states. Beaudin says that the tribe has opened up its vaccine events to any tribal members who reside outside of Ho-Chunk lands. “So our tribal members can come from anywhere in the world and receive their vaccine here,” Beaudin says. “We have seen tribal members from California, Montana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.” To track their COVID-19 efforts, Ho-Chunk Nation launched a COVID-19 dashboard which includes information about doses administered and the demographics of vaccine recipients.

As of early March 2021, the Ho-Chunk Nation had administered 2,685 first doses of the vaccine. They are currently vaccinating:

  • Healthcare workers
  • Long term care residents
  • Frontline Essential Employees: as determined by the Executive Directors
  • Elite Elders
  • Eminent Speakers

For the Buena Vista Rancheria Band of Me-Wuk Indians Tribe in California, DeSpain says their COVID-19 response was heavily coordinated with outside agencies. They looked to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to garner masks and interior air filtration systems for tribal facilities. “It was a huge internal effort with everybody involved,” DeSpain says. 

The Buena Vista Rancheria Band of Me-Wuk Indians Tribe was also able to coordinate with the public health department in Amador County to get all essential personnel and tribal council members vaccinated. DeSpain says that they have close to 500 individuals on staff between tribal and economic development. 

Tribal Challenges and Resilience

Throughout the pandemic, Native American communities have experienced a myriad of challenges ranging from keeping their tribes economically afloat to keeping community and traditions alive. These challenges are what catalyzed tribal leaders to mobilize community efforts to communicate COVID-19 safety information and get the community vaccinated.

Economic Impacts

On top of health concerns, indigenous nations have also faced the economic impact of COVID-19. On Wisconsin’s northern coast, there are over 3,000 Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal members, according to Mike Wiggins Jr., the tribal chairman and executive director of the nation. “We’ve had today 178 positive cases,” Wiggins tells Verywell. Similar to the Ho-Chunk Nation and the Buena Vista Rancheria Band of Me-Wuk Indians Tribe, Bad River Band issued a mask mandate and safer-at-home work policy in order to maintain safety while preserving economic development. 

“We chose from a food security standpoint to keep our gas station and grocery stores open,” Wiggins says. “Being able to feed our people and meet the food demand of our community, as we went through uncertain times with our shutdown was very important and critical.” The tribe relied heavily on the COVID CARES Act, federal legislation that provided $2.2 trillion dollars of economic relief to American workers, families, small businesses, and industries.

Eight billion of the $150 billion of the CARES Act was shared amongst 574 tribal governments. However, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that this amount was far from enough as tribal governments stretched their finances and health systems. A history of federal funding shortfalls and unequal recognition of tribal nations as distinctly sovereign have contributed to the inequities observed in tribal nations today.

Loss and Community

Since the pandemic’s onset, Native Americans have experienced disproportionate COVID-19 deaths, and some nations have had a harder time than others. Wisconsin quickly became a COVID-19 hotspot. Wiggins says that his tribe has had a challenging year. “We’ve lost three elders here from our reservation and that’s been very difficult," Wiggins shares. "Obviously, our goal from day one was to not lose any tribal members." To prevent further deaths, Wiggins and the tribe have continued working collectively to keep tribal members safe. “Grateful that we haven’t experienced more loss," Wiggins says. "We don’t take that for granted."

In addition to losing tribal elders, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa was deeply impacted when they had to adjust to remote living. “Our culture is rooted in community and our ceremonies are rooted in gathering in that collective power of thought and prayer,” Wiggins says. “It’s really tough to not be with community members.”

Preventative Care

To curb the spread, Beaudin says that Ho-Chunk Nation changed their ordinance policy to reflect the CDC’s masking, isolation, and quarantine orders. “We enacted a masking order for all of our tribal buildings and any facilities located on tribal lands,” Beaudin says. Through their tribal newsletter, email, and tribal legislators and leadership, the tribe spread the word about the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines.

But they're trying to still get the message out there. "So we're still trying to continue messaging that people still need to be testing people, still need to be doing the basic precautions of masking, washing their hands, and social distancing, even if they have received the vaccine," Beaudin says.

Ever since the nation re-opened clinics, Beaudin has also struggled with getting tribal members back into the doctor's office for preventative visits. “Since we’ve opened it [the clinic] back to preventative visits, what we’re finding is that people don’t want to come to the clinic because they’re afraid that they’re going to pick up COVID,” Beaudin says. “We still don’t know what the impact of not having those visits for a period of time is going to be on the population.” In the meantime, Beaudin will continue to maintain normal clinic operations and encourage tribal members to utilize telehealth services. 

Looking Toward the Future

Since the pandemic’s onset, indigenous nations have looked to their community members for support. “It’s amazing how we have come together to really protect our tribal members and try to do what’s best for them and address their needs,” Beaudin says. “The genuine love and compassion that our staff has for the people that they serve has literally brought tears to my eyes.”

Beaudin was moved by seeing elders get vaccinated. “It really hit me when we vaccinated our elders and our language speakers," Beaudin shares. "Hearing the language spoken made me feel like this is why we’re doing our life in our way."

Indigenous nations have worked diligently to keep COVID-19 cases down and vaccinations up. Now, there's some hope for a return to pre-pandemic life and community gatherings. “Seeing our children play together, hearing their laughter as other things are going on. I always get a kick out of that," Wiggins says. "So I love to see the intergenerational aspect of people coming together."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 among American Indian and Alaska Native persons – 23 states, January 31–July 3, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(34):1166-1169. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6934e1

  2. U.S. Department of Treasury. The Treasury Department is delivering COVID-19 relief for all Americans. Updated March 9, 2021.

  3. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Tribal nations more vulnerable to COVID-19 impacts, need additional fiscal aid. Updated August 5, 2020.

  4. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Broken promises: continuing federal funding shortfall for Native Americans. Published December 2018.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 mortality among American Indian and Alaska Native persons – 14 states, January-June 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(49):1853-1856. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6949a3

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to protect yourself & others. Updated March 8, 2021.

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