Chairman Anthony Sampson of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has a simple message:
With COVID-19 infections on the rise on the tribe’s reservation north of Reno, Sampson stepped up calls for people to stay home to avoid putting tribal members at risk.
“I’m pleading with you people out there, this is not a laughing matter, this is not a drill,” Sampson said in a YouTube video from his home where he said he was quarantining.
“This is reality and it is going to hurt people.”
According to a post on the tribe’s Facebook page, there have been 20 confirmed positive tests on the reservation. The post said 14 were in Nixon, four in Sutcliffe and two in Wadsworth as of May 4.
The post didn’t say whether any of the infected people required hospitalization. Sampson did say in his video that no tribal members have died from the virus.
“We have no deaths on this reservation and we want to keep it that way,” he said.
The tribe’s reservation has been under a state of emergency due to the virus since March 16 and Pyramid Lake, a popular fishing destination, is also closed indefinitely to non-members. The tribe is also enforcing a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
On Friday, the tribe and the Nevada Department of Transportation announced that beginning May 8, there would be road checkpoints at reservation boundaries.
The checkpoints will be located at the intersection of State Routes 446 and 447 directly south of Nixon, and State Route 445, mile marker 28 south of Sutcliffe.
Only tribal members or non-tribal members with proof of residency will be allowed to pass. The checkpoints are scheduled to be in place for 60 days.
In the video, Sampson expressed dismay over people disregarding the directives.
“It just worries the heck out of me,” he said. “We tried to warn you guys about moving around and nobody is listening.”
The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe isn’t the only tribal government working to protect members from the virus.
Native people in Nevada know stories about the devastation past pandemics have caused in tribal communities.
Many are particularly disturbed by the notion of disregarding social distancing precautions because it can put others, including elders, in harm’s way.
“First of all, none of our people are expendable,” said Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute, during an interview last month. “In native communities our elders are our most precious commodities. Those are the people we look to. They have the most knowledge.”
Since the outbreak, native communities have also endured intrusions and even vandalism from non-members who disregard reservation closures.
On Instagram there are photos of people visiting Pyramid Lake, despite the tribe’s decision to close it to all non-members.
And Torres said non-members have broken through barriers and damaged signs installed on the tribe’s reservation in Schurz.
“They don’t honor our sovereignty and think it is their right to go out there,” she said.
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,” Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, said on May 1.
In Nevada, there have been nearly 6,000 confirmed infections and nearly 300 deaths, with 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 tribes often struggle to keep up with the bureaucratic demands tied to money that can be slow to arrive.
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 intergenerational households and where family get-togethers are a high priority.
“I can’t reiterate to you enough, stay home,” Sampson said. “The more we move about the more this virus moves about.”
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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