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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

In Contrast To Wyoming, Wind River Tribes Counter COVID-19 With Aggressive Measures

Savannah Maher
Cristina Gonzalez and Joann Kaplan prepare to test patients for COVID-19 at Wind River Family and Community Healthcare.

This story is powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.

For the past 140 years, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes have both called the Wind River Valley home.

They didn't choose to share this reservation - and it's no secret that the two tribal governments don't always agree. But since the start of the pandemic, they've been on the same page about one thing.

"We had to try to jump out ahead of this and protect our people," says Stephen Fast Horse, co-chair of the Northern Arapaho Business Council.

Fast Horse says the prevalence of underlying conditions such as diabetes and heart disease among Native people make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. He blames the federal government's underfunding of the Indian Health Service.

"As far as the chronic diseases that a lot of our tribal members face even before this pandemic, the lack of health care systems on the reservation...we had to keep this from turning into a widespread wildfire on the reservation," Fast Horse said.

So the two tribes, on April 1, issued a joint stay-at-home order, despite there being no such statewide restriction in Wyoming. Tribal members face fines and even jail time if they leave their homes for non-essential purposes.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Ebbert of the Wind River Family and Community Healthcare, a clinic run by the Northern Arapaho Tribe, says this strict order is coupled with an aggressive medical strategy.

"We decided early on that testing was going to be very important," Ebbert says.

Since mid-March, the clinic's tested more than 3,000 people from both tribes - that's about 30% of all the tests conducted in Wyoming.

"Over half of our cases are people who were asymptomatic," Ebbert says. "These are people who would not have been tested in the county or other places in the state."

Ebbert says they're so far ahead of the curve that some non-Natives in the area have been wanting to come to the tribal clinic to get tested.

But all that testing isn't cheap. And the Northern Arapaho Tribe is footing the bill.

Meanwhile, both tribes are also facing a budget crisis. Their casinos are closed. Their oil and gas revenues have taken a nosedive. And unlike state and local governments, they don't have a tax base to fall back on. The federal government is just now beginning to distribute $8 billion in virus relief money to tribes - more than a week after a congressional deadline.

The budget crisis means cuts to vital social services when they're needed most.

Savannah Maher produced this story for the Mountain West News Bureau as part of the America Amplified: Election 2020 initiative, using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. You can follow America Amplified on Twitter @amplified2020.

"We know that there's a lot of tribal members that are going without," says Eastern Shoshone Business Council Co-Chair Karen Snyder.

She says the tribes have gotten creative in helping their members stay afloat, including opening a special hunting season. Both tribes have been hosting food and supply distributions around the reservation. And they're providing quarantine housing, which is critical considering the overcrowding that results from a shortage of housing on the reservation.

"We do everything that we can to keep them home, keep them safe, to keep them sheltered and whatever it is we need to do to keep them healthy for the most part," Snyder says.

Still, the Wind River Reservation has lost community members to coronavirus. On April 20, four members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe died from complications of COVID-19. Two were tribal elders, and three were members of the same immediate family.

State Rep. Andi Clifford, whose district encompasses much of the reservation, says that hit her constituents hard.

"The sense of urgency for us as tribal people, as Indigenous people, to take care of our people - one death was one too many for us," she says.

Clifford says the strict stay-at-home order and mass testing on the reservation will prevent more tragedy. But there's been one ugly consequence to the aggressive approach: More testing means a relatively higher number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on the reservation, and Clifford says some border town residents twisted that data to blame Native people for the spread of the illness.

"These racist comments and actions were going to occur, it was just a matter of when," Clifford says. "Unfortunately, turning that switch on to increase that type of thought started because of the deaths, the four deaths. Which is just unfortunate. But it doesn't surprise me."

Nor is Clifford surprised that her constituents are largely abiding the stay-at-home order. She believes they're comfortable making a sacrifice on behalf of the larger community. Unlike dozens of Wyoming cities and towns, Wind River communities haven't seen rallies protesting the restrictions.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah is a Report For America corps member. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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