Assisting Indian Country With Critical Needs During COVID-19

   By Helen Oliff

As the world continues to grapple with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities in Indian Country are working to address their own unique challenges in combatting the coronavirus. Multiple people have tested positive on Native American reservations, including (as of this posting) 26 confirmed cases on the Navajo Nation that occupies portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico as well as a case at a South Dakota Indian Health Service clinic.

Many tribal communities lack access to basic resources such as food, water and toilet paper every day. And now more than ever, these supplies are vital as Native Elders who finally get transportation for shopping are finding the shelves bare. Tribal governments that rely on casino income are also facing additional revenue concerns now that all the casinos have temporarily closed.

With all the schools closed, food and water are critical for Native families who often depend on school meals for their children. Paula Claw, our Navajo Relief Fund program chairperson, shared a vision we are seeing across America – only this one is different: “Our families face the shortages of food because of school closures and possibly medicine refills because of transportation issues. The local trading posts are being bombarded by people from other areas purchasing all the food… and making it difficult for our [Native American Elders] to purchase the food they need… [When the trading posts] restock, meat, potatoes, tissue and Clorox, they are gone in a few hours. They have decided to ration the purchase of some items.”

So why is the coronavirus more of a crisis on the reservations? Because there are limited stores, limited transportation and limited access on a good day. And this threat is exaggerated by the reality of limited healthcare in the face of COVID-19.

Earlier this month, Senator Tom Udall, D-N.M., who is the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, presented an emergency relief package to Vice President Mike Pence that asks for $64 million in funding to assist tribal leaders and urban Indian health departments with combatting coronavirus for the 2.5 million American Indian and Alaska Natives in the U.S. As Sen. Udall said, “Tribal communities face unique challenges in responding to public health threats, and we need to do everything we can to make sure that Native Americans don’t get left behind.”

While tribal communities await a decision on federal funding, Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) is doing all we can to continue to make deliveries to our tribal partners. We are also following health best practices for our drivers and staff, including social distancing, handwashing and sanitizing.  

Several reservations have enacted travel restrictions to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus, including Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Northern Cheyenne, the Navajo Nation and (as of this posting) nine others in the Northern Plains and Southwest. However, each of these communities has continued to allow PWNA onto the reservation so that we can distribute vital supplies to program partners, such as food, water, food, toilet paper and other essentials, as part of our program services under Northern Plains Reservation Aid, Sioux Nation Relief Fund and Native American Aid in the Northern Plains and Southwest Reservation Aid, Southwest Indian Relief Council and Navajo Relief Fund in the Southwest.  

Besides those with travel restrictions, our partners throughout Indian Country are depending on PWNA to continue to deliver and help address their most immediate needs. Our warehouse distribution center teams in South Dakota and Phoenix are working tirelessly to distribute critical supplies, along with  our drivers who are putting in the maximum number of DOT-allotted driving hours to ensure we reach communities quickly.

Unfortunately, our warehouse supplies are running low and donations to PWNA are critical so that we can quickly replenish our food, water, toilet paper, paper towels and personal hygiene items. We also need you to educate friends and family about how the stress of COVID-19 is further exposing tribal communities to nutrition and health disparities. Now more than ever, we urge Americans to come together and help those most in need.

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