Participants in the Rural Assembly Roundtable (clockwise from the top): Maria Givens of Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Northern Idaho (moderator), Candalerian Preston, director of the Gila River Tribal Health Department, Walker River Paiute Tribe Chairman Amber Torres, and Shaandiin Parrish, Miss Navajo Nation 2020-2021.

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Navajo Nation had some of the worst infection and death rates in the U.S. Today, nearly 90% of Navajo citizens have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine. Other tribes have seen similar success stories and have even opened their clinics to non-members. 

Four tribal members gathered on April 21 as part of Rural Assembly: Everywhere to discuss the response of Indigenous peoples to the pandemic, the challenges the health emergency placed on Tribes, and the growing success in tribal vaccination rates. 

Candalerian Preston, director of the Gila River Tribal Health Department, said her tribe was able to deploy vaccines quickly and effectively due to its on-the-ground knowledge of the area, and its “heavy-duty, utility type of vaccination mobile unit.”

Delivering vaccines on a reservation means getting well off paved highways, Preston said. “They’re dirt roads and all different types of things that we have to be able to navigate through.”

Gila River met the challenge and took vaccines to residents, instead of the other way around—an accomplishment which relied upon “really understanding the layout of the community,” Preston said. 

Despite its high vaccination rate, Navajo Nation has faced its share of unmet goals this year. 

Before the vaccination drive, any contact with the elderly was viewed as a threat to public health. Shaandiin Parrish—Miss Navajo Nation 2020-2021—wanted to create connections between her tribe’s youth and its elders. 

“It’s actually my platform,” Parrish said. “Before I became Miss Navajo Nation, I wanted to bridge the gap between our elders and our youth.” Parrish discussed her tribe’s resilience and fierce imperative to protect Navajo elders, while lamenting the fact that she wasn’t able to make those cross-generational connections by traditional means. 

“Right now, the way that our community is continuing our traditions is through Zoom,” said Parrish.

For members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, the start of the Covid-19 pandemic posed challenges familiar to rural residents nationwide. The reservation is 40 miles from any grocery store, relies on aging ambulance service, and is run by a small staff “where everybody already wears 12 hats,” said the tribe’s Chairman Amber Torres.

When it comes to vaccinations, though, Torres sees the tribe’s rural setting as an advantage when it comes to achieving widespread inoculation. The smaller, more manageable size of the community meant that the Walker River Paiute were able to get vaccines distributed in a “very timely manner,” said Torres. But the vaccination drive also triggered the historical trauma of previous times when the Federal Government forced vaccinations on the population.

The panelists ended the call with a message of solidarity. 

“Always fight for your people,” Torres said. “But not only your people, all Native people.”