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Native Americans use culture and community to gain tribes' trust in Covid vaccine

Cherokee Code Talkers are getting the first Covid-19 vaccine doses in their community because "our language is at risk."
Lummi Nation member James Scott, whose native name is Qwelexwbed, get the first Covid-19 vaccination on the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham, Wash., on Dec. 17.
Lummi Nation member James Scott, whose native name is Qwelexwbed, get the first Covid-19 vaccination on the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham, Wash., on Dec. 17.Elaine Thompson / AP

They were the original Code Talkers, Native American soldiers sent to fight in France a century ago who relayed orders from the trenches in Cherokee to confuse the enemy and help the Allies secure victory during World War I.

Then, the Germans were the foe. Now, it's Covid-19.

While the rollout of coronavirus vaccinations has been chaotic and resisted by some of the public, the Cherokee have quietly mobilized their members to get as many needles into as many arms as soon as possible, starting with some of the most endangered members of the tribe — those who still speak Cherokee.

Dennis Sixkiller of the Cherokee Nation receives a Covid-19 vaccine.
Dennis Sixkiller of the Cherokee Nation receives a Covid-19 vaccine.Courtesy Cherokee Nation

"We put Cherokee-fluent speakers, most of whom are elders, at the front of the line," Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., leader of the 385,000-strong Cherokee Nation, said on a Zoom call from the reservation in Oklahoma. "The reason is that our language is at risk."

Tribal leaders and activists across the country have harnessed the reverence for Native American culture and tradition to vaccinate a people that has deep-rooted fears and suspicions of the U.S. government and the medical establishment.

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"We are more at risk because we've had to deal with 500 years of oppression," said Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute, who said some of the Native American women who were forcibly sterilized in the 1960s and the 1970s are still alive.

But a survey of 1,435 Native Americans across the country spearheaded by Echo-Hawk in November also revealed that 75 percent would be willing to be vaccinated, not because they suddenly trust Uncle Sam, but because they put the "we" ahead of the "me."

"The primary motivation for participants who indicated willingness to get vaccinated was a strong sense of responsibility to protect the Native community and preserve cultural ways," a summary of the report said. "Despite hesitancy towards the vaccine due to historical and current abuse from healthcare and government institutions, they ultimately felt that the heavy cost of COVID-19 on their community outweighed potential risks from the vaccine."

So Native American leaders are selling their people on vaccinations by emphasizing the good they could do for the tribe, as opposed to the individual, Echo-Hawk said. And it appears to be working.

The Seattle Indian Health Board gets about 7,000 calls a month, Echo-Hawk said. On Monday, it got 4,900 calls from Native Americans seeking vaccine information. "It crashed our system," she said.

The Cherokee nation, as of Wednesday, had been able to vaccinate 12,000 people.

Hoskin said: "When fluent speakers got the vaccine, I think that helped people's anxiety subside. And I think people felt sort of a renewed obligation to try and protect the culture by getting vaccinated."

Betty Frogg of the Cherokee Nation receives a Covid-19 vaccine.
Betty Frogg of the Cherokee Nation receives a Covid-19 vaccine.Courtesy Cherokee Nation

Not all the Cherokee speakers who got the first shots are over 65, Hoskin said. But the tribe was able to prioritize who was vaccinated first because it answers to the Indian Health Service, a federal agency, rather than the state of Oklahoma, which has put most people under age 65 in Phase 4 of its rollout.

"I like to think a lot of Cherokee leaders feel like this," Hoskin said. "You've got your ancestors at your back."

Only about 22,000 people speak Cherokee, a language that began to decline after the tribe was forced out of North Carolina and marched off to Oklahoma in the 1830s on the Trail of Tears. But along with other Native languages, like Navajo and Choctaw, it was deployed by the U.S. to fool the enemy in both world wars.

The pandemic has hit Indigenous people like the Cherokee, the largest Native American tribe in the U.S., especially hard, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Native Americans are 3.5 times more likely to contract Covid-19 and 1.8 times more likely to die from the coronavirus than white people, the CDC found.

Why? Poverty and poor medical care, along with higher rates of asthma and diabetes, are the chief culprits, Echo-Hawk said. In addition, many Native Americans live in multigenerational and often crowded households.

When the vaccines made their debut in December and the government began encouraging Americans to be vaccinated, tribal leaders eager to protect their members volunteered to roll up their sleeves to get the first doses.

"We wanted to reassure our people that it was safe," said Donny Stevenson, vice chairman of the Muckleshoot Tribe.

The tribe, most of whom live on a reservation about 30 miles south of Seattle, also emailed a digital newsletter to computer-savvy members and held Zoom meetings that included trusted health professionals.

Meanwhile, the elders got paper copies of the newsletter with the free lunches that are regularly delivered to their doorsteps.

Stevenson said that because of the strategy, which promoted mask-wearing and social distancing, there was very little community spread on the reservation. And on Sunday, it saw proof that its drive to vaccinate tribe members was working when hundreds of cars arrived at the reservation's health clinic for a vaccination drive-in sponsored by the tribe.

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About a quarter of the 3,300 enrolled members of the tribe have been vaccinated, Stevenson said.

Echo-Hawk said the rest of the country could learn something from its original inhabitants.

"Our community is behaving differently," Echo-Hawk said. "Whenever there's discussions about Native Americans, it seems like they always talk about the problems, but they need to come to us, because we have the answers.

"We are using our cultural strength to not only survive but thrive amid horrific obstacles," she said.