Another Thing to Survive
At the onset of the pandemic, the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation's response was swift and sweeping. This wasn’t their first collision with a deadly virus, after all. They followed CDC guidelines and developed their own strict response plan, driven by the entrenched knowledge that they must protect themselves at all costs. No one else would.
In 2020 the tribe, a sovereign nation in South Dakota, set up checkpoints on roads with access to the reservation in a vigilant effort to protect its people. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem ordered the checkpoints removed, a demand she did not have the right to enforce. After the vaccine arrived and infection rates fell, the tribe removed the checkpoints themselves.
Before the vaccine, most fears centered around keeping the virus away. Now, “the anxiety is the vaccine itself,” said Joseph White Eyes, noting the history of broken trust and abuse by the US government. The sterilization campaign that the Indian Health Service (IHS) carried out in the 1960s and ’70s afflicted between 25-40 percent of Native American women of childbearing age nationwide. Sterilizations were performed through coercion and without informed consent. “Mass sterilization to most people is just an event,” Remi Bald Eagle told me, holding back tears. “But to us, that’s family that never made it here.” Now, the IHS is comanaging the vaccination effort to combat Covid-19 along with CRST Tribal Health. Tribal leaders and health care workers are making every effort to overcome resistance, but for many tribal members, this legacy of abuse is making the choice to get vaccinated or not acutely difficult.
“The threat against our people has never changed,” Bald Eagle told me. “We survived massacres, wars with the US, and laws the US made against us. We survived prejudice, racism, genocide, sterilization, boarding schools, I don’t even want to get into adoptions, the churches.” The Covid-19 pandemic “is just another thing to survive,” he said.