Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. (gray suit) is seen touring the Stilwell PPE manufacturing facility. (Photo by Cherokee Nation Communications)

As the Covid-19 swept through Oklahoma, officials with the Cherokee Nation said that at times, they had a hard time sourcing proper personal protective equipment for health workers, citizens and others. 

Now, the tribe – the largest in the U.S. – has created its own facilities to manufacture PPE so that it can provide the equipment to Cherokee Nation citizens and non-citizens alike. 

The tribe has used a portion of its CARES Act funding for two facilities in rural Oklahoma within its reservation. The first facility, a 27,000-square-foot building, is a former Walmart, located in Stilwell. Another,  6,000-square-foot facility, is located in Hulbert.

“[The idea] was actually born out of the pandemic and very early on, trying to ensure that we had enough PPE, not only for our medical teams but also for our citizens and other employees,” said Todd Enlow, chief of staff for the Cherokee Nation. 

“Realizing what a shortage there was across the United States and some of the challenges we’ve faced with the supply chain in several areas, we actually started to evaluate it then and kicked the idea around of producing different types of PPE, from gloves to gowns to face masks.”

Enlow was instrumental in finding PPE at the start of the pandemic, a task that was challenging, he said. Not only was it difficult to find the materials, but the prices fluctuated substantially, he added. 

“From one weekend, an N95, you could pay $2.50 for one, and then a week later it was $4.50, and then a week after that it was $5-something,” he said. “And so, as you’re trying to protect your workforce, you more than doubled your expenses as far as the PPE. That’s why we worked with several different vendors and we rate-shopped and tried to see lead-times and how fast stuff could be here and honestly, it was a pretty good challenge just trying to get the materials here.”

The facilities, which are currently in the testing phase, will offer three-ply surgical masks, as well as N95s, Enlow said. The facilities will also produce another type of mask for long-term production, the N99, which is a 99% particulate matter filtration, as opposed to N95, which is 95%. 

Once the facilities are officially underway  – after certification from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health – 200,000 masks will be made per day. 

Currently, there are about 10 people undergoing training at the facilities. The participants are utilizing programs known as HOPE and RESTORE. 

HOPE focuses on individuals and families affected by opioids, while the RESTORE grant is focused on people who may have been laid off or had their hours reduced or they’ve lost their jobs completely due to Covid-19, Enlow said.

Ultimately, the Nation will need about 25 to 30 employees for the Stilwell facility and about five people at Hulbert, Enlow said. 

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. (gray suit) at the Stilwell PPE manufacturing facility. (Photo by Cherokee Nation Communications)

“But we also have the capacity, if the demand’s there, we can go to three shifts per day, and we can go upwards of 90 to 100 employees between the two sites,” he added. “Those would be new jobs, ultimately, once we get everything up and running at full-capacity.”

Both Stilwell, population 4,060, and Hulbert, population nearly 600, are traditional Cherokee communities, Enlow said. He added that Stilwell is also the site of Cherokee Nation Industries, the first business enterprise doing manufacturing. 

When deciding where to house the facilities, officials looked at places adjacent to where Cherokees live, and that’s why Stilwell and Hulbert were selected. 

The PPE will go to healthcare workers as well as the entrances of the Cherokee Nation and to other organizations, Enlow said. They may also look to other state or government entities for contracts. 

Cherokee Nation Tribal Councilman Canaan Duncan has lived in Stilwell his whole life. It’s a place he loves and has a deep affection for. 

The town, he notes, has struggled over the years, like many areas of rural America, and is a food desert. This new facility is an opportunity to change the trajectory of the community. 

“But now, we’re creating our own PPE not just for our tribe, but for the rest of the country,” Duncan said.

“And that’s big, particularly in Adair County, because throughout the pandemic, we’ve really struggled in Adair County. We’ve had some of the highest numbers, some of the highest death rates here with Covid, and so being able to not only protect our nation and the United States, but also protecting our own community here at home, has just been wonderful.”

The facility in Stilwell is a former Walmart building, one that Duncan remembers going to while growing up. Now, it’s been refitted to house the equipment for the manufacturing of PPE materials. 

“It kind of got out of date and they built a new building and it was abandoned for a while, and so the tribe has not only revitalized an abandoned place,” he said. “It’s a great location. It’s very big in size but they’ve also put state-of-the-art equipment in there. It’s got advanced technologies and it’s pretty neat to see a place that was once something… a pillar of the community, very important.”

When Duncan ran for tribal council, he said that creating economic development in Adair County was of the utmost importance to him. 

“For us as, a tribe, to invest here locally has been the biggest part to me because … we’re not only creating revenue for the tribe, we’re not only helping fight the pandemic, but we’re also paying a good living wage to Cherokee citizens and they’re, in turn, putting those dollars back into the community whenever they go out and do things,” he said. 

“That’s been the biggest part for me, is seeing such a positive growth so quickly and quite frankly, silver lining is seeing that positive growth in the midst of a pandemic, when everything’s struggling.”