Across the United States, various First Nations tribes are way ahead of their state and federal counterparts in COVID-19 vaccinations. After being hit particularly hard with COVID-19 along with other US minority groups, tribal leadership in different parts of the country prioritized vaccination.
Higher vaccination rates are made possible by a different type of distribution system. As the Pew Trust reports, “When tribes began preparing for the vaccine rollout, they were given the choice to receive their doses either from their state’s allotment or directly from the Indian Health Service. Many tribes that chose IHS have been pleased with the distribution so far, saying the centralized health care system has been more effective than the fragmented approach seen in many states.”
In some cases, tribes have reached herd immunity status and are now offering the vaccine to their neighbors free of charge.
For example, the Chickasaw Nation is now offering COVID-19 vaccines in Oklahoma at no cost to the general public. There are no tribal citizenship, employment, or residency requirements. The tribe is advertising that anyone who wants a shot may schedule appointments online for a drive-thru vaccine in Ada, Oklahoma, or at one of the Chickasaw Nation satellite health clinics in Purcell, Ardmore, or Tishomingo.
The Cherokee Nation is also vaccinating any adult who wants to schedule an appointment at various Oklahoma locations. The tribe began vaccinating elders in December and has continued to vaccinate its vulnerable population since then, administering over 36,500 doses of the vaccine to date.
In terms of linguistics, vaccinating elders often means that ongoing tribal language efforts are preserved. For example, that’s what Cherokee schoolteacher Meda Nix said back in January when the tribe was undergoing its first vaccination efforts — the tribe lost many Cherokee-speaking elders to the coronavirus, and focused on saving the ones who remained.
On March 17, the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana reached a 95% vaccination rate, and currently has only two tribal members with COVID-19. The Mekoryuk tribe in Alaska has a 97% vaccination rate. “Our tribal leaders are really strict about this COVID-19,” said Mekoryuk COVID-19 tribal coordinator Mona David in a recorded interview. “We mostly did this for our children’s sake, so they could go back to school.”
The hard-hit Navajo Nation has also outpaced surrounding local states in getting vaccinated, the Navajo Times reported. Navajo Nation had one of the highest COVID-19 per capita death rates in the country, with 1,219 deaths to date. Other tribes from Oregon to the Dakotas have followed suit in outpacing their local states, with tribes not only offering vaccines, but pushing toward vaccine and lockdown education for their members.
Why have so many tribes pushed so hard for vaccination? “Our genetic memory of past epidemics is very strong,” said Chuck Sams, a COVID-19 incident commander at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “Epidemics that came through between 1780 to 1860 wiped out nearly 95% of our population. We’re the descendants of the 5% that survived.”