Native communities ask Nevadans for help during pandemic crisis

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For people on the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute reservation it takes an hour to get to West Wendover, Nev., the closest town of any kind.

Such isolation seems like it could be an asset as the nation turns to social distancing to fight a deadly pandemic that spreads by human-to-human contact.

But for the Goshute people remoteness can make aspects of life difficult, especially when it comes to getting food and other essential supplies.

“It is hard for people to go into town,” said Rupert Steele, chairman of the tribe, which has its reservation on both sides of the Nevada-Utah border.

The tribe is one of several remote, native communities in Nevada that struggle to keep resources flowing even in good times.

More: Goshute Go Fund Me page

More: Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada fundraising page

With the pandemic wiping out jobs and making trips to town risky and federal cash relief slow to arrive, the tribe is turning to the community for help.

Steele recently posted an appeal for help on GoFundMe.com, a website people use to raise money directly from the public. The Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada also has an online COVID-19 relief donation page.

“It has been expensive for us to put up funding providing for our elders,” Steele said.

Getting supplies to Indian Country

Since the COVID-19 virus pandemic swept into Nevada around early March, getting supplies to Indian Country has taken a mix of state and volunteer effort.

Early on, Bonanza Produce donated nine pallets of fresh produce for delivery to native communities around the state, said Jon Bakkedahl of the Nevada Department of Emergency Management.

The department paid to cover the logistics of delivery, he said.

Since then the department has been working to help coordinate more deliveries with support from private companies like Nevada Gold Mines and organizations such as the Intertribal Council of Nevada, a group that represents Nevada’s 27 federally recognized tribes.

The Nevada Gold Mines donations have amounted to more than 30,000 pounds of supplies, including beef, milk, potatoes and bread.

They’ve gone out to 10 tribes, mostly in remote locations around the state. Two shipments went out in April, two more are scheduled for May. 

Bakkedahl said the effort has included locating cold and dry storage space in Elko so people can stockpile supplies and deliver them as needed.

“That way it doesn’t go bad,” he said.

The Nevada Department of Agriculture has an ongoing monthly drop on 12 reservations and Food Bank of Northern Nevada has mobile harvest and food drops on four reservations.

In Reno, Three Nations Walmart on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony offers early shopping hours for tribal citizens.

And the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada has an application with a private vendor for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to fund 3,000 produce boxes weekly across the state.

More help needed as challenges mount

Even before the pandemic, people in native communities faced more health and economic hardship than most Americans.

“Native Americans are physically more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, then COVID hits, and the disparities have become really obvious,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission.

In Nevada, there have been more than 4,900 confirmed infections and more than 250 deaths, including one woman from the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony who died after testing positive.

Montooth said the U.S. spends less money per capita on native health than it does on inmate health, despite numerous court cases and executive orders that have reaffirmed the government’s trust responsibility to ensure services such as health care.

Native communities are also more likely to be struggling economically and are now being hit with pandemic-related job losses.

Congress has approved additional funding for tribes. But smaller tribes often struggle to keep up with the bureaucratic demands tied to money that can be slow to arrive.

Steele said the Goshute tribe has applied for federal money but hasn’t yet seen results.

As struggles mount, it is difficult to maintain morale, too, Steele said.

Avoiding the disease means avoiding physical contact with other people, which can be physically and emotionally difficult in native communities which tend to have more inter-generational households and where family get-togethers are a high priority.

“We are a social people, we like to go out there and be with our relatives,” Steele said. “That is hard for tribal people to be keeping away from each other along time.”

But sticking to social distance guidelines is hugely important because many native communities are small and just one infection could lead to disaster.

Among tribal nations, none has been hit harder than the Navajo Nation in Arizona, which has emerged as a hotspot for infections.

In little more than a month, the Navajo Nation went from zero confirmed cases to more than 2,300 and more than 70 deaths.

It’s another reason Steele said it’s so important to keep supplies coming in, so there are fewer reasons for people to leave native communities to go to town and risk contracting a virus they could bring home.

“That is the scary part,” Steele said. “I think about all those things and how it could potentially spread real fast.”

Benjamin Spillman covers the outdoors and environment in Northern Nevada, from backcountry skiing in the Sierra to the latest from Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.

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