The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected Native American tribal elders in Michigan, who have faced a high number of coronavirus-related deaths in addition to the disruption of in-person gatherings, traditions and ceremonies that are essential to the tribal life.
And in recent years, the deep-rooted values instilled by the elders have enabled tribes to make the necessary adaptations when faced with the challenge of how to protect some of their most vulnerable and valuable members.
Nancy Smit, secretary of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Tribal Council in Fulton, sits on her tribe’s elders committee. She said elders are held in the highest regard as tribal leaders, ensuring that tribesmen follow the practices, customs and understand the history of their people.
“There’s a wealth of knowledge there that we manage to retain within our communities,” Smit said. “With the passing of an elder, we lose some of that history.”
Across racial demographics, older age groups have suffered the most from COVID-19-related deaths, but the virus has also killed Native Americans at particularly high rates.
Here in Michigan, the state reports that Native Americans and Alaska Natives have a death rate of 3,927 per million as of March 18, second only to African American deaths.
Laura Kaminski, communications manager for the Gun Lake Tribe in Shelbyville, said all it takes is one tribal elder to “walk,” or transition from one life to another, to have a huge impact on a tribe.
“That elder could be the one we learn our language from or ask to lead ceremonies for our community,” Kaminski said. “Without even a single elder, this can lead to a difficult change that will affect our entire tribe.”
Although some of these connections were severed due to such high death rates, the elders’ teachings of resilience and perseverance remained as tribes rallied to fight the virus and its impacts.
Kaminski said tribal elders and leaders keep the community strong by making decisions that put the unity and well-being of the tribal community first from the start.
“At the start of the pandemic, the Gun Lake Tribe Health and Human Services Department provided direct outreach to elders,” Kaminski said. “The comprehensive services provided to our tribal elders included home visits, delivery of essential supplies and phone calls to check on well-being. Health and Human Services continues to provide ongoing communication regarding health and safety guidelines and updates, including ongoing access to clinical staff for citizens to call anytime with health-related questions. COVID-19.
Cameryn Ryan, community health outreach manager for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, said social support was also needed at a time when communities were unable to come together for things like tribal meetings or Pow Wows, a cultural gathering where people come together to dance, sing, socialize and honor their heritage.
“Some of our elders have obviously been around a long time, so they were alive when it was illegal to cultivate,” Ryan said. “Having some of that removed, I’m sure, brings some of that trauma back.”
For Kaminski, they had the chance to adapt programming and services to a virtual format.
“While we would all prefer to get together in person, virtual options have allowed us to continue to stay connected and maintain our community,” Kaminski said.
Once the vaccination rollout began in December 2020, the vaccine became a key strategy to slow high death rates among tribal elders.
With a deep-rooted distrust of government in a generation that has been subjected to years of forced assimilation, Kaminski said tribal elders were “seeking to make an informed decision.”
“At the start of the vaccination rollout, our senior services department responded to many requests for additional information,” Kaminski said. “By working with our health and human services department to get all the information available, they have become very responsive to vaccination.”
As of March 17, according to state data, Native American and Alaska Native residents account for the third highest percentage of vaccine initiation rates and have the second highest vaccine completion rate in this regarding coverage by race.
Ryan said that despite the historic trauma, having health experts within the tribe to help with the rollout meant elders were more likely to seek out the vaccine.
The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi has three tribal clinics: the Urban Indian Health Clinic in Grand Rapids, the Pine Creek Reservation Health Clinic, and a health clinic at Firekeeper’s Casino near Battle Creek.
“I think because we already had health services in place, we were able to bridge that gap,” Ryan said.
How tribes have been able to rally around older generations throughout the pandemic “says a lot about where we came from and the people who made sure we listened to these stories and just knew how to survive. “Smit said.
“We live for these future generations to make sure they have a place so they know who they are, where they come from and who their inhabitants are,” Smit said.
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