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Native Communities Brace for More Cases of Coronavirus

Tribal nations are now protecting communities from the outbreak by imposing travel restrictions.

A scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S.

Italy is not the only government to protect its community from a growing health crisis by imposing travel restrictions. Tribal nations are doing the same things too.

As the number of COVID-19 cases continue to grow, tribal leaders are suspending travel for employees, cancelling events and even urging tourists to refrain from travelling on their reservations.

Oglala Sioux Tribal President Julian Bear Runner signed an executive order Monday suspending all non-essential travel for tribal employees and elected officials. If an Oglala Lakota tribal employee needs to travel for work, they now have to get approval from the president.

Additionally, the tribal nation is also telling members of the public, specifically tourists and passersbys, to postpone visits to the reservation at this time.

“… I strongly recommend the general public coming from off reservation to visit, to postpone your visits until a time deemed necessary that the travel suspension is lifted,” wrote President Bear Runner.

This news follows similar decisions made by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, which is located approximately 100 miles away.

On Friday, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe also banned tribally-funded travel, including by motor vehicle and by air, to 12 cities and to every state that have confirmed cases of COVID-19. The ban will continue until it is deemed safe to travel again, the tribe said.

“There are too many unknowns and lack of test kits to determine who may be carrying it,” writes Rosebud Sioux Tribal President Rodney M. Bordeaux.

In the Southwest, other communities are taking precautions too.

Earlier this week, Santa Fe Indian School, a school in New Mexico, cancelled upcoming international cultural exchange trips. They had already bought plane tickets and booked hotel reservations for spring and summer trips to Japan and Indonesia.

But the school, chaperones and parents felt it was best to keep their kids home.

“Japan received nearly 10 million tourists from mainland China which is about a third of their total visitors,” said William Pacheco, Kewa Pueblo, who is a trip chaperone. “It was better to be on the safe side. Although it seems to be mild in young people, it is not good for elders. And if we brought it home to our communities that is something that I couldn’t risk.”

Besides cancelling events, many communities are using social media to get the word out.

On Facebook, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians updated information on proper hand washing … and even what to do if someone thinks they’ve contracted the virus. The tribal nation also restricted any unnecessary out-of-state travel, especially to those states heavily affected by COVID-19, in order “to limit the potential for exposure to our Tribal community,” the post said.

On the Navajo Nation, leaders from all three branches of the Navajo government held a prayer service this morning to ask for protection of all Navajo people against the virus.

The nation also held a live radio forum on KTNN, nicknamed “The Voice of the Navajo Nation” on last Thursday to provide information for tribal members to protect themselves. Besides this, the have also organized a COVID-19 preparedness team.

The Navajo Times reported Monday that the Gallup Indian Health Service Hospital had begun screening for COVID-19 at its front entrance. Officials at the hospital said there are no confirmed cases in New Mexico, but they were taking precautionary measures.

Last week, Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, and a Democrat from Kansas, launched a page dedicated with up-to-date coronavirus information on her website. Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, did for her New Mexico constituents too.

“Our country has a broad infrastructure and skilled health professionals to help combat the Novel Coronavirus,” Haaland’s website stated. “My team and I are engaged and ready to help health agencies on the ground so that New Mexico is prepared for what comes next.”

Sports, Powwows and Competitions

Yesterday, the 33rd annual All West Native American 100 was cancelled as a result of growing cases of coronavirus in Colorado. The announcement was made on their Facebook page, where users expressed their reaction.

Some said “it’s better to be safe than sick and sorry.” Others said “hope we can get money back, we already booked flights.”

The organization says they will process a full refund for teams who have already paid a registration fee.

Organizers from the Denver March Powwow say they “are moving forward with our plans to celebrate our 46th Annual Denver March Powwow,” despite having 11 COVID-19 cases in the state, they said in a Facebook post by the powwow on Wednesday.

The organizing committee says precautions will be taken at the event which include sanitizing stations and PSAs to ensure the well being of the community. The event will be in coordination with the mayor’s office, VISIT Denver and Coliseum staff.

“There is not a consideration of cancellation at the present time,” the post said.

Meanwhile 2,000 athletes from around the world were supposed to attend the 2020 Arctic Winter Games in Canada to show off 33 sports including 16 traditional sports happening from March 15-21.

“There was no scenario under which we felt it was safe to conduct the Arctic Winter Games,” said Dr. Catherine Elliott, Yukon’s acting chief medical officer of health, at a news conference Saturday in Whitehorse. The event was cancelled.

“I’m making this recommendation out of concern for the health and safety of Yukoners, of all athletes, of staff, of volunteers, and of families,” she said.

In Hawai’i, organizers from the Merrie Monarch festival, an international acclaimed hula competition, said the event is still a go. The competition will begin in mid-April.

“There are no plans to cancel this year’s festival,” Luana Kawelu, the festival coordinator told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald last week. “We are going forward with it. The stage goes up next Monday already.”


The Indigenous Tourism Forum of the Americas was supposed to happen this month in Albuquerque. But organizers are postponing the event. In the meantime, they will host a series of virtual events and continue discussion in their Facebook group.

In South Dakota, the upcoming 7th Gen. College & Resource Fair is scheduled as planned, organizers said. The event will bring 485 Native students to speak with 44 colleges and 17 student-focused organizations in early April. Organizers said one college decided to skip the event, however.

The Native Public Media conference has canceled the 2020 Native Broadcast Summit which was originally scheduled for April 28-30, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Other larger conferences have changed schedules. Earlier last week, the SXSW events were cancelled. An online list shows 221 other conferences have been postponed or cancelled, as well.

Ohio was the latest state to declare a state of emergency Monday following California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Washington and Utah.

It has been nearly seven weeks since the first case in the country and now there are over 600 reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States.

Quindrea Yazzie, Navajo, contributed to this report.

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