How One Native American Group Is Protecting Its Community from COVID-19

3 min
Allen Bates from the Yurok Transportation Program, helped facilitate a drive-through food pickup service for Tribal citizens. (Courtesy Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

California's Native American communities seem to have avoided the high level of coronavirus infection that the Navajo Nation in the Southwest is suffering, and the Yurok in Northern California offer a window into how some tribes are keeping their communities safe.

So far, there have been no confirmed cases of the virus on the Yurok Reservation.

One of the key ways the tribe is fending off coronavirus transmission is through culturally relevant public health messaging, says Virginia Hedrick, who directs the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health and was born and raised on the Yurok reservation.

That means using "targeted messaging that includes indigenous faces, indigenous colors, and baskets and things that relate to us," she said.

For example, an ad campaign created by the California Rural Indian Health Board refers to people over the age of 70 as elders instead of seniors.

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And when communicating the idea of social distancing, it doesn't work to talk about limiting interaction to your family, Hedrick said, because in her community, "we're all family. If you think, 'Oh, I can just see my family,' that's still a pretty large network of people."

Instead, referring to social distancing as limiting contact to “people in your household” makes more sense.

An image from the California Rural Indian Health Board's #stayhomesavelives campaign, public health messaging built by and for California’s Native population.
An image from the California Rural Indian Health Board's #stayhomesavelives campaign, public health messaging built by and for California’s Native American population. (Courtesy of The California Rural Indian Health Board and The California Tribal Epidemiology Center)

It's important that messages comes from tribal leadership," Hedrick said, given the egregious injustices to which the U.S. government has subjected Native American communities in the past. She cited the coerced sterilization of  Native American women in the 1960s and 1970s as one example.

"So when you have these same institutions coming out and saying you can't leave your home and this is the new guidance, it can be hard to trust that agency," Hedrick said.

Yurok Chairman Joseph James at an in-person Tribal Council meeting, which took place before the pandemic began. Tribal Council meetings are now virtual.
Yurok Chairman Joseph James at an in-person Tribal Council meeting, which took place before the pandemic began. Tribal Council meetings are now virtual. (Courtesy Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

In March, Joseph James, the Yurok chairman, declared a state of emergency for the tribe. Throughout this period, tribal leadership has been communicating both through social media and more traditional methods, like A-frame signs, as some households on the reservation do not have electricity. For the first time, the tribal council is holding their meetings online instead of in person.

Tribal leadership has closed the reservation, meaning nonresidents can drive through but are not allowed to stop. A curfew has also been instituted.

The tribe includes a lot of elders as well as vulnerable members who have high blood pressure or diabetes.

"Over these last two weeks, we made it a huge push, providing food boxes to our elders that live on the reservation and outside of our reservation," James said.

The tribe has relied on its cultural heritage, as well.

"As Indian people, we go back to our culture and way of life and prayer," said James.

Just a few weeks ago, tribal members scheduled what would traditionally be a communal dance, with restrictions for social distancing. They asked everyone to participate from their homes and pray however they wanted to -- by lighting a fire, for instance, or bringing out traditional regalia for what’s known as the jump dance.

"It was a prayer not just for us," James said. "It was prayer for everybody across the world in combating and pushing back this COVID-19 virus."

While this virus is new, Chairman James said it’s important to invoke some traditions that are very old.