Staff for the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center in Oklahoma prepares meal kits for a drive thru event to feed community memb...

As COVID swept the state, Native communities in Oklahoma raced to preserve culture

OKLAHOMA CITY – In the final hours before his father’s death, Chris Tall Bear dressed in full personal protective equipment so he could hear his dad’s last wishes and say a prayer over him.

Weeks earlier, William Tall Bear, 85, had driven himself to the hospital suffering from shortness of breath and a cough. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 and quickly hooked up to a ventilator – a pack-a-day smoking habit and a chronic inflammatory lung disease compounding the effects of COVID.

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William Tall Bear collected a mountain of accolades in his life as a Korean War veteran, a founding member of the Oklahoma Indian National Guard Clan, a master welder and an expert bead worker. A citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe, he traveled across the U.S. to represent his tribe, heritage and family.

Before he died, he asked that his family continue the traditions of their people.

“We told him to go on and not to worry about us,” Tall Bear said about his father’s final moments. “We told him, ‘We will protect what you have helped build.’”

As the number of COVID deaths continue to climb higher than 1 million deaths, members of Oklahoma’s Native American tribes and Indigenous communities across the country are seeking ways to cope with the devastation caused by the pandemic. They remember those lost, while also fighting to keep traditions alive. COVID has taken a disproportionate toll among Native Americans across the country; despite having case rates similar to those among white individuals, hospitalization and mortality rates from COVID have been higher among certain racial and ethnic groups.

Of the more than 1 million U.S. COVID deaths, 11,131 were Indigenous Americans. One in 219 Indigenous Americans have died from COVID, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data released in June.

The CDC says risk of hospitalization from COVID is roughly three times higher among American Indian and Alaska Native people compared with white people, while the risk of death is approximately double. In Oklahoma, more than 1,550 Native American lives were lost to COVID as of March 31 — the highest rate of any racial demographic group in the state. The CDC also notes that Indigenous deaths are often undercounted, with the latest research suggesting the true mortality rate for this group could be around 34 percent higher than official reports.

“There’s not an infinite number of Chickasaw citizens,” said Dr. John Krueger, the undersecretary of medical staff and quality for the Chickasaw Nation Department of Health.  “We have only a certain number of those who have knowledge of the history and tradition and of the language and so to many of us involved in this work during the pandemic and it wasn’t just about preserving people, it was about preserving culture, heritage and a way of life.”

For the Yuchi tribe, the news of Maxine Barnett’s hospitalization due to COVID sent shockwaves through her community.

Maxine Barnett was the last known fluent speaker of the Yuchi language before she died in August of 2021. Photo courtesy of Brent Deo

Maxine Barnett was the last known fluent speaker of the Yuchi language before she died in August of 2021. Photo courtesy of Brent Deo

As the last remaining fluent speaker of Yuchi, the 96-year-old Yuchi Tribe elder had made it her life’s mission to pass the Yuchi language down to following generations. Her work with the Yuchi Language Project saw hundreds of students learning at Barnett’s knee in an attempt to preserve the notoriously difficult-to-learn Yuchi language.

Barnett made lesson plans and recorded stories in Yuchi for students to study and helped train a handful of members through thousands of hours of lessons, conversations and stories. But after she was hospitalized in November 2020, the future of that work was suddenly in jeopardy.  Many in her community believed it could be the end of their language and the severing of a crucial tie to their history and culture.

Brent Deo, 23, studied Yuchi with Barnett starting four years ago.  He said he was nervous at first to meet Barnett because he didn’t know any Yuchi.

“I told her, ‘I’m sorry I’m still trying to learn,’” Deo said. “She told me, ‘That’s OK, we’re all still learning, even me.’ That helped me so much in the beginning, just sharing her mindset of continuing to learn and grow.”

After she was released from the hospital, Deo and others sat at Barnett’s bedside daily speaking, listening and recording Barnett in hopes of capturing as much of her knowledge as possible. Deo said there are now three prominent Yuchi speakers thanks to that extra time with Barnett.

“You can’t just look this up in a book or on the internet,” Deo said. “There is a reason we hold elders in such high regard and that’s because they are the ones who teach us what to say, what to sing, what to do and which way to go. Maxine wanted us to learn our language, so that’s what I tried to do.”

Maxine Barnett (center) sits with Brent Deo (right). Barnett helped teach Deo how to speak the Yuchi language. Photo courtesy of Brent Deo

Maxine Barnett (center) sits with Brent Deo (right). Barnett helped teach Deo how to speak the Yuchi language. Photo courtesy of Brent Deo

In the final days of her life, Barnett wrote out a prayer for her people. Barnett had beaten COVID-19 months before, but a fall and infection had weakened her.

Her final words echoed the work she had dedicated her life to. She implored her family, friends and students to keep the traditions of their people alive by studying and speaking the Yuchi language.

“I want you all to know the Yuchi Language,” she said in her prayer. “Don’t forget the language. When I hear you speak, I believe.”

Barnett died on Aug. 27, 2021.

While not fluent yet, Deo said he feels confident enough to teach his own Yuchi language course with the help of hours of Barnett’s recorded conversations.

‘If the community’s not healthy, then we’re not healthy’

Henrietta Mann, the endowed chair in Native American Studies at Montana State University and a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho of Oklahoma, said pandemics throughout history have disproportionately affected Native Americans.  It is estimated that upwards of 80 to 95 percent of the Native American population was decimated within the first 100 to 150 years following the arrival of Columbus and other Europeans in 1492 due to exposure of diseases previously not introduced into their communities, such as smallpox, cholera, measles and whooping cough.

But through those trials and suffering, Mann said a priority on protecting the community has always been the primary goal.

“As each tribe was relocated into Oklahoma, each added the vibrancy of their respective cultures and languages to the others which they had devotedly carried with them to their new homelands,” Mann said. “Our contemporary communities emphasize love, respect, cooperation and responsibility for one another. We place a high value on taking care of one another.”

Within days of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, Muscogee Creek Nation declared a state of emergency. The Chickasaw Nation and Cherokee Nation followed with emergency declarations of their own, closing most businesses to help contain the virus and protect their community members. Tribes across the region followed suit in an attempt to limit infectious spread.

“Native communities have faced disproportionate destruction by clinical illness in the past,” said Dr. John Krueger, the undersecretary of medical staff and quality for the Chickasaw Nation Department of Health. “I think that knowledge is one of the reasons that we reacted so fast and took [COVID] seriously.”

As cases skyrocketed, Chickasaw Nation health services helped create systems for supplying community members with food, medicine, supplies, and animal feed to households with a sick family member to facilitate isolation of patients and their families.

Many tribes ramped up public health messaging about mask-wearing and social distancing while also issuing travel advisories against leaving home and limiting interaction to help control the spread of COVID-19 and limit as many deaths to community elders as possible.

Protecting elders was a main priority for Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., who frequently pleaded with his citizens to mask up, get tested and practice social distancing to preserve tribal elders’ health.

Any Cherokee elder aged 62 and older was eligible to receive a $400 stipend to assist with costs associated with their own COVID response, such as food, cleaning supplies, bills or rent, to help relieve the financial burden associated with this pandemic.

“What we’ve tried to appeal to is the reason the Cherokee people are still here in a literal, concrete sense, because our ancestors put their community ahead of themselves,” he said. “We would not have survived our removal in the 19th century, our forced removal along the Trail of Tears, had we not had some collective sense that we needed to take care of each other.”

Several tribes also came out as early leaders in vaccination efforts. Along with its existing hospital, clinics and pharmacies, the Chickasaw Nation established drive-thru COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites that allowed the nation to see as many as 6,500 patients per day for either testing or vaccination. They became so efficient that they were able to get patients in, seen and on their way in an average of 18 minutes, Krueger said.

Staff for the Chickasaw National Medical Center in Oklahoma provided COVID-19 vaccines to all Oklahomans. Photo courtesy of the Chickasaw Nation

Staff for the Chickasaw National Medical Center in Oklahoma provided COVID-19 vaccines to all Oklahomans. Photo courtesy of the Chickasaw Nation

“People were calling us the Chick-Fil-A of testing and vaccines,” Krueger said. “We know that nobody wants to be poked or prodded and have a stick jabbed at you. So we just wanted to make it as convenient and pain-free as possible.”

The services weren’t limited to citizens. Within the first months of vaccines being available the Chickasaws, Cherokee, Osage and Muskogee (Creek) Nations were all offering vaccines to eligible groups outside of their nations and ahead of other vaccine sites in the state.

Oklahoma was the sixth state to reach 1,000,000 doses given of the COVID-19 vaccine, and the effort was so successful that the Oklahoma State Department of Health credited the joint effort of the state, tribes and the Indian Health Services with helping Oklahoma outpace other states in vaccine rollout.

“We really see this as doing our part in the community,” Krueger said. “If the community’s not healthy, then we’re not healthy.”

While some within the tribal community were hesitant about receiving the vaccine, several nations did their best to push messaging of protecting the community, keeping elders safe and sharing the effectiveness and efficiency of the COVID-19 vaccines.

When that didn’t sway someone, they turned to rewards.

Employees within both the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Muskogee (Creek) Nations were paid to get the vaccine. Muscogee Creek Secretary of Health Shawn Terry said in an emergency council meeting that the $300 stipend for employees could turn the tide of the pandemic for their nation.

“There is only one way out of this and that’s to receive this vaccination,” Terry said at the April 2021 council meeting. “We hope that incentivizing can be more effective than going to the more drastic measures.”

A ‘blueprint’ on how to carry on

Today, many of Oklahoma’s tribes are seeing continued decreases in COVID cases. The Chickasaw Nation and Cherokee Nation both report fewer than 100 active cases of COVID-19 while seeing high vaccination rates. Nationally, 72 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives of all ages had received at least one dose of a covid vaccine as of March 28, and 59 percent were fully vaccinated.

The federal government has promised to improve the Native American health landscape. The IHS said it has received more than $9 billion to provide resources for the agency, as well as tribal and urban Indian health programs across the U.S., to address long-standing health inequities experienced by American Indians and Alaska Natives as the pandemic continues.

President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill is set to appropriate $3.5 billion to the IHS to build necessary infrastructure. The agency said funding will provide high-quality health care and disease prevention in tribal communities with an estimated $700 million expected in fiscal year 2022.

For Chris Tall Bear and his family, the grieving process continues for his father William.

Members of the family have gone to tribal ceremonies, events and gatherings. Tall Bear said they’ve celebrated graduations and new life through the birth of a new baby in the family.

A memorial is still in the works for William Tall Bear. His granddaughters crowdfunded money to plant a grove of cedar trees near the site of the Concho Boarding School, where William Tall Bear attended as a child.

“We have protocol and procedures for mourning,” Tall Bear said. “We paint ourselves and mourn away from others. But then we come back out and we participate in life.

“We are leveraging those cultural best practices. They are a blueprint to show us how to carry on.”