Native communities in Nevada turn to tradition and each other during pandemic crisis


Stay-at-home warnings aimed at slowing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted thousands of people in Northern Nevada to rush to grocery stores in preparation.

Autumn Harry went to Pyramid Lake.

Harry, 27, is a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, which means she’s part of a culture that’s turned to the lake for sustenance since time immemorial.

“We’re in a global pandemic, and it’s so important that we return to these foods,” said Harry, a graduate student at University of Nevada, Reno. “Going out fishing on my own is a lot safer than going to the grocery store.”

But Harry, whose classes are suspended due to the pandemic, isn’t just fishing for herself.

She’s catching, cleaning and distributing Lahontan cutthroat trout to elders and others in the community because she recognizes the importance of maintaining healthy food sources during the emergency, especially for people who can’t leave their houses.

“Our people have been eating trout for thousands of years. They’ve sustained our communities and have contributed to our survival as a people,” said Harry, who’s also working on starting a community garden.

Harry’s early morning trips to Pyramid Lake are just one example of how people in Nevada’s 27 native communities are helping each other cope with the pandemic.

They’re working in temporary health clinics and coordinating food deliveries and, at the tribal government level, enacting restrictions on travel and visitation. 

And while each tribal nation is unique, there’s a shared sense of urgency across native communities when it comes to preventing the spread of the virus that’s already infected more than 600,000 people in the U.S. and caused more than 25,000 deaths.

Challenges specific to tribal communities 

In Nevada, there have been more than 3,300 confirmed infections and more than 150 deaths, including one woman from the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony who died after testing positive.

And data released Tuesday from Washoe County shows the 89510 ZIP code, home to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, has four positive cases of the coronavirus. That translates to 2.5 cases per 1,000 residents, the highest concentration in the county. 

Although native people face many of the same concerns as everyone else when it comes to the pandemic, tribal communities have their own challenges and perspectives.

Many native communities struggle with higher rates of health conditions that can make people more vulnerable to the virus. Some communities are also in remote locations which can make food, medicine and internet access more difficult.

“This hideous virus is hitting people of color, people with previous dispositions, people with more difficult problems,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission. “All of those are applicable to all our tribal nations.”

The history of viruses and pandemics causing widespread illness and death in native communities also colors how some indigenous people view the seriousness of the spread of COVID-19.

“We know the consequence, we know what sickness has done to our people,” said Myron Dewey, a filmmaker and member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “I don’t want that to happen to our community.”

Some tribal nations hit harder than others

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

In little more than a month, the Navajo Nation went from zero confirmed cases to more than 1,000 and more than 40 deaths.

Lack of medical resources, a vulnerable population and a high rate of intergenerational homes are among the contributors to Navajo country’s emergence as a hot spot with the third-highest per capita rate of infections, behind New Jersey and New York.

Fortunately, much of Indian Country hasn’t seen nearly the same level of infection – yet.

According to Indian Health Services, there have been more than 1,300 positive results among more than 14,400 tests, although the agency says its data is limited because tribal government and urban Indian program reporting is voluntary.

“The rest of the country is faring pretty well in my opinion,” Dean Seneca, CEO of Seneca Scientific Solutions and former director of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center, told the news program Democracy Now.

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But Seneca quickly added that without action to prevent the spread, tribal nations remain at great risk.

“My fear is the virus hasn’t really hit rural America yet,” Seneca said. “That will be the big test.”

Concerned that the virus could have outsized impact in native communities, some tribal governments have enacted restrictions aimed at minimizing contact that are beyond what many non-tribal governments have proposed.

In Nevada, the Walker River and Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal governments have enacted curfews that are punishable with fines and the potential for jail time.

Both tribal governments have also drastically restricted the number of non-members who can come to their reservations. 

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The restrictions include bans on non-member recreation, which includes fishing at Pyramid Lake, a significant source of income for the Pyramid Lake Paiute.

“We have had to be proactive in this decision and it was made to protect the health and safety for everyone,” Pyramid Lake Paiute Chairman Anthony Sampson Sr. said in a YouTube video discussing anti-virus measures by the tribal government.

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Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute, and the tribal council declared a state of emergency on March 16.

They’ve since closed the reservation borders, placed non-essential workers on leave and reconfigured infrastructure to ensure food pickup and delivery and essential medical care and social services are continuing in a safe manner.

Torres is also working to ensure the Walker River Paiute are included in the distribution of funding and resources related to the pandemic, including the acquisition of a fast-acting testing machine the tribe received from Indian Health Services.

“Whenever the governor is doing something or the president is doing something we are on it,” Torres said. “I have got a huge mouth and I sit on a lot of national boards and local boards.”

Elected leaders in the Reno Sparks Indian Colony were also quick to act as the potential severity of the pandemic became clear.

In addition to closing the Hungry Valley area of the reservation to non-members, the tribe quickly deployed temporary health center where people can be screened for COVID-19 symptoms from their vehicles.

Once screened, they can be directed to further services without leaving the vehicles.

The tribe has even set up a mobile testing in an RV that allows medical workers to get lab results and phone them to a pharmacy in a tribal health building. Tribal members can then drive up to the pharmacy and receive medication without leaving their cars.

The tribe also devised a red card-green card system to help people.

Under the system, people receive red and green cards they can place in a window. The green card means that all is well. The red card means there is a problem, such as a medical issue or food shortage, and can prompt a neighbor or tribal police to help out.

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Chairman Arlen Melendez said the rapid emergency response was due in part to the fact that even before the pandemic, the tribe sent essential workers to emergency response training. The training helped them develop emergency response plans, which include communications with non-tribal emergency response centers, in advance of the crisis.

Tribal officials were also motivated by a desire to avoid a health crisis rather than endure one, even if it included inconvenient and difficult steps such as encouraging people to avoid contact with each other, a tall order in tribal communities where family contact is central to culture.

“We were a little ahead of the game, I can’t say way ahead,” Melendez said. “I’m glad we moved now and not two weeks later.”

Controversy, disrespect, bureaucracy

The fight to slow the spread of the virus in native communities has also come with challenges.

Controversy over the distribution of money from Congress, disrespect of tribal sovereignty by non-natives and struggles to keep pace with the demands of state and federal bureaucracy are among the problems.

The greatest controversy so far has been over the distribution of $8 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act that was included for tribal governments.

Alaska Native Corporations, which are private, for-profit entities established under the Alaska Native Claims Act of 1971, have been included in the distribution.

Their inclusion prompted objections from tribal government officials around the U.S., some of whom have called for the dismissal of assistant secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney over the controversy. Sweeney is a former president of one of the 12 corporations.

A number of tribes, including some in Alaska, have filed a lawsuit to prevent corporations from receiving the funding and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association told the news outlet Indian Country Today it had “lost confidence” in Sweeney’s ability to lead.

Congressional members from Alaska defended the corporations and Sweeney. 

“It has been very, very controversial,” Montooth said.

Closer to home, native people have had to cope with non-natives continuing to force their way onto tribal land despite tribal government orders to stay out.

Torres said people have pushed through barriers to park and camp near the tribe’s Webber Reservoir, even though tribal officials have barred non-members from visiting during the pandemic.

She said the disrespect of the tribe’s sovereignty puts the entire community at risk.

Tribal police, she said, have had to enforce tribal regulations, she said.

“They would bring their camp trailers, they would bring vehicles,” Torres said. “They don’t honor our sovereignty and think it is their right to go out there.”

Tribal nations also face a more mundane, although no less challenging, problem in the form of bureaucracy.

Much of the funding available to tribes requires copious amounts of paperwork and tracking to receive and spend.

Not every tribe is equipped to keep pace with the demands. Even in the best of times Nevada’s smallest and most remote tribes have little to no staff to handle paperwork.

And during the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping up can even be problematic for larger tribes because the need is urgent and staffing has been cut back to maintain health and safety standards.

“It is hard for any government to keep up with much less when you are with a skeleton crew,” Montooth said. 

Native communities persevere

Despite the struggles, native people in Nevada persevere.

Ray Bacasegua Valdez, a member of the Texas Band of Yaqui Indians, lives in downtown Reno in the Riverside Artist Lofts. He’s been calling and messaging his family afar while hunkering down in his studio and creating art.

He’s also turning to traditional medicines, particularly a root that is only collected in Nevada. The same root helped Native Americans fight off the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, Valdez said.

“Traditionalists like myself, we believe in the power of prayer and medicine, but we also need information,” said Valdez.

He’s particularly concerned about family and friends that are still using sweat lodges and don’t think the virus will reach their communities.

“You can’t really do it alone, you have to do it with someone. I just figure, don’t do it,” said Valdez. “It don’t matter if it’s a few or if it’s 10. It don’t matter… If one is positive, it won’t matter.

If you don’t care about yourself, care about the next person.”

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 right here.

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