Louie Pitt remembers the moment that COVID-19 got real for him.
Pitt, governmental affairs and planning director for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, called over to Celilo Village in April to speak to his friend Bobby Begay. Begay didn’t pick up.
After more calls, Pitt learned that the 51-year-old Begay had died of coronavirus complications.
Begay, an energetic and larger-than-life Yakima tribal member, was known for diving into the frigid waters during the annual lamprey harvest and catching the eel-like creatures with his hands. As lead fish technician for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, he led a small crew that chased sea lions away from the Bonneville Dam each spring using “cracker shells” fired from shotguns. He served as a guardian of the river and its lamprey and salmon. COVID-19 stole him from a wife and four children.
Begay’s death was a wake-up call, Pitt said.
He admitted that many on the Warm Springs Reservation were initially slow to understand the true gravity of the virus. Some believed the chatter on social media about coronavirus being a hoax.
“It wasn’t until we actually lost some people that we could document to COVID-19 that people started getting serious,” Pitt said.
Five Warm Springs elders died in fairly quick succession. Shirley Stayhi Heath, a Yakima tribal member and the wife of Warm Springs Chief Delvis Heath, was the first death on the reservation and in Jefferson County. Heath helped run the stables at the Kah-Nee-Ta High Desert Resort and Casino and worked at the Warm Springs Elementary School for 20 years.
“That was a tremendous loss for our community,” Pitt said. “She was just really a great partner for the chief. She cared for us as a people.”
Pitt estimates about 20% of reservation residents wore masks in March 2020 before cases started multiplying and the council stepped up its messaging. By the end of April, he figures about 70% were masking up. These days, Pitt said, most people take the virus seriously.
Pitt tracks new cases and deaths for the tribe. As of March 9, he reported 718 positive cases and 22 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
American Indians and Alaska Natives are almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Victims died younger, with 35% of deaths occurring in people younger than 60, compared to just 6% among whites.
The virus exploded onto the Navajo Nation, the most hard-hit tribe, last spring. By early February, the tribe had experienced more than 1,000 deaths and almost 29,000 cases.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota drew fire from Gov. Kristi Noem in June when it set up highway checkpoints to interview motorists about their health and travel plans. The tribe also instituted lockdowns on the reservation. Noem had balked at requiring masks or limiting gatherings such as the annual motorcycle rally held in Sturgis, which is located just over 100 miles from the reservation. As state case numbers rose, the tribe of about 8,000 worried about keeping the pandemic at bay while also being challenged by poverty and high rates of chronic disease. Despite the tribe’s efforts, the virus found its way onto the reservation. By January, more than 1,700 residents tested positive and 33 had died.
In Oregon, the state’s second case of COVID-19 sprang up on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton on Feb. 29, 2020. An employee of the reservation’s Wildhorse Resort & Casino required medical attention while attending a basketball game in the nearby town of Weston. The tribe acted quickly, closing Wildhorse and sending hotel guests and gamblers packing until employees could sanitize the sprawling resort and analyze the danger.
They shuttered the school, Head Start, tribal day care and the community center. Community events went on pause. The annual July 4 Wildhorse Pow-Wow was canceled.
Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, the tribe’s primary care provider, morphed into pandemic central, testing, diagnosing, contact tracing and now vaccinating tribal members and other Native Americans who rely on the clinic for health care.
So far, the reservation has battled back the virus with tenacity and reported one death. The testing positivity rate has consistently been better than Umatilla County’s rate. Yellowhawk started vaccinating a week earlier than the county after receiving a supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine which requires storage at ultra-low temperatures. The vials of vaccine found a home in an old freezer once used by the fisheries department to store lamprey specimens.
The CTUIR, a union of the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Nez Perce tribes, numbers about 3,000 members living on or near the 172,000-acre reservation. Don Sampson, the chief of the Walla Walla tribe, understands the brutality of the virus. When his nephew, Milo Abrahamson, 39, fell ill with the virus in June and was taken by medical helicopter to Portland’s Providence Medical Center, Sampson sang Waschat songs and prayed with him over the phone. Sampson even traveled to the hospital and sang songs in the lobby nearest his nephew’s room.
Abrahamson, a blackjack dealer at the Wildhorse Casino, spent several days in a medically induced coma with a tube down his throat. He lost 30 pounds. Now he’s healing but still feels weak and brain fogged at times. In September, Abrahamson appeared in a video to encourage his fellow tribal members to guard themselves against the virus.
“My main message to everybody in the tribe is take this very seriously,” he said. “It only takes one time. And that one time almost cost me my life.”
While some reacted with skepticism to the video message, Sampson believes most tribal members realize the gravity of the situation. Elders were among the first to get access to the vaccine and most are taking the opportunity.
“Not many elders have said no,” Sampson said. “I’ve not heard there’s been a lot of resistance to it. There’s pretty good faith in Yellowhawk and its medical staff. So I think that’s helpful.”
He said the tribe scaled down their feasts and ceremonies meant to give thanks for traditional foods such as roots, salmon, berries and water. Normally, the tribe holds feasts at the longhouse with several hundred people and invited guests.
“We really had to shrink it down,” Sampson said. “Everyone did the best they could.”
Sampson, CTUIR Board of Trustees chairman in the early days of the casino, credited his tribe’s frugality, retro-budgeting and disdain for deficit spending for having the means to help members financially get through this challenging time. Casino workers, both Indian and non-Indian, received paychecks during closures.
The tribe nurtures reservation residents in other ways as well.
“If an elder gets sick, we track them very closely,” Sampson said. “We bring them food, get them supplies. Someone will keep an eye on them. My son was in quarantine and (the tribe’s department of children and family services) brought him groceries.”
If he squints, Sampson can see the light at the end of the tunnel. So can Pitt from the Warm Springs tribe as he watches vaccination numbers rise.
“I got vaccinated two Wednesdays ago (on Jan. 27),” said Pitt, who is 72. “I feel better about life.”