Lessons We Can Learn For COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution in Native Communities

PWNA was recently invited to participate in a listening session with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security CommuniVax Coalition to discuss COVID-19 vaccine distribution. The Coalition has since published and shared the ‘Equity in Vaccination’ report on their findings and recommendations after numerous critical stakeholder conversations. I appreciated the opportunity to provide an Indigenous perspective and am pleased with the report that was issued, but there is a burning question that remains: will anything change?

The report proposes a plan for leaders to layout an equitable “Five I’s” vaccination campaign that includes iteration, involvement, information, investment and integration.  The report also includes a comprehensive checklist for leaders to follow at each section that allows for adjustments, flexibility and unpredictable nuance(s) that may exist. And as we’ve seen over the past 11 months of the pandemic, information changes rapidly.

As the report indicates, communities are not a monolith and there’s not a cookie-cutter solution that will solve every dilemma, but therein lies an opportunity to solve immediate issues through long-term solutions. This approach is consistent with how PWNA approaches our work with reservation partners.

Five weeks ago, when the early distribution of the vaccine was being rolled out to communities across the nation, the same concerns I had then were reflected in the listening session, including widespread mistrust throughout the community because of historical trauma, misrepresentation of data that accurately counts Native American communities, lack of access to vaccine information, and inaccessibility of healthcare services in Native communities. 

Tribes have since superseded these barriers and surpassed expectations in all aspects of the rollout. We’re seeing Native leaders step up to support vaccine distribution, agility to administer the shot and less bureaucratic red tape to stall these efforts. Stories of Native communities getting their members – and even non-members – vaccinated are trickling in, and they’re consistent with a discussion I previously had with a Tribal councilman. The councilman shared they’d been getting grief about giving the vaccine to non-members, to which I responded, “get it into everyone’s arms that will take it.”

Getting people vaccinated that are in our communities, interacting with our community members, or working for our enterprises should not be excluded. This is paramount in caring for the health and well-being of our community and putting the whole ahead of the individual has been a custom of Indigenous people from the beginning.

The JHU report goes on to say that the recovery group should also strategize how to reverse the underlying social and economic inequalities that made some groups more vulnerable to adverse pandemic effects in the first place. This could not be more true. Isn’t it time to change the approach and use a framework that will leverage the community as the solution and not the problem?  John’s Hopkins University thinks so, and so does PWNA.

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Native News Pick of the Month: COVID-19’s Toll on Elders and The Perspective of One Indigenous Man

This month, PWNA vice president of programs Rafael Tapia Jr. offers his thoughts on our February ‘Native News Pick of the Month’: Indigenous Americans dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white Americans via The Guardian


Imagine more than 66 million Americans dying in the past 10 months. Imagine the heartache, fear, trauma and devastation this has produced. Imagine all the relatives, friends and citizens no longer with us or there to care for their loved ones, provide for their families or serve their communities. Imagine the deep void this left us with and a level of grieving unknown in our lifetime.

We’ve shared before about the impact of losing Native American Elders. Ancestral knowledge is still passed on through our Elders in the form of oral traditions, mentoring and sharing of life experience. Elders transfer our cultural knowledge to the younger generations. Yet every day, COVID-19 is taking our Elders at higher rates than ever – and with them ancestral knowledge we may never regain.

My tribe, the Pascua Yaqui, has ceremonial celebrations for life and death. Death ceremonies celebrate the passage to the next journey, a return to the life source from which we all come, a destiny we are all born with and should embrace as part of life. Still, it is heartbreaking that so many Elders are dying prematurely from COVID-19 and taking with them their precious ancestral knowledge.

The pandemic death toll for Native Americans is staggering. Nationwide, one in every 475 Native Americans has died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, compared with one in every 825 white Americans and one in every 645 Black Americans, according to analysis by APM Research Lab (as mentioned in The Guardian’s exclusive story). Native Americans have suffered 211 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 121 white Americans per 100,000. Communities in Mississippi, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas have been hit the hardest. (My own tribe has lost approximately 2 percent of our citizens to COVID-19.) And the true Native death toll is undoubtedly higher as Native data is often patchy or non-existent in federal, state and local reports.

The odds were stacked against Native Americans before COVID-19 brought its devastation to our communities. A staggering 23 percent of Natives were already food insecure and 40 percent of reservation housing was substandard or overcrowded with several generations in a small home. Additionally, Native Americans already faced a disproportionate rate of chronic health issues, including the highest rate of diabetes in the world.

Is this our lot as Native peoples? To be burdened with disease and the ills of the world? Why is it not our lot to reap the windfalls brought by wealth and power that so many other groups enjoy? The answer lies in how the events of our country’s history have impacted Indigenous people, from first contact until today.

The conditions that make Indigenous people more vulnerable were established long before the pandemic reached our shores. Native Americans are the poorest, the sickest and the lowest in educational attainment in America. We may well soon be completely extinct, just like other tribes that once prospered on this continent. And yet, for the Indigenous tribes still struggling to hold onto life, have we not qualified to be on the endangered species list?

COVID-19 is a wake-up call for Native peoples. Let us not be lulled into complacency by poverty, sickness and the myriad distractions of the outside world. Let us rise together and fight COVID-19 by holding on to what we have, what we believe in and what we must do to preserve our ways. We as Native peoples have been here before and we will continue to find reason to celebrate life – and death.

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From Foster to Forever: Helping Cats & Dogs in Underserved Communities

The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are about 23 million cats and dogs living in underserved communities across the United States. Stray and homeless animals are especially common in reservation communities because animal-related resources are scarce and veterinary services are limited.

Reservation Animal Rescue (RAR), a program of PWNA, helps program partners rescue hungry or injured stray animals and stop the spread of disease these animals can carry. One of these partners helped find a home for a special kitten whose rescue journey started in the trash – Katya.

Andrea, founder of the Oglala Pet Project (OPP) in Kyle, South Dakota, first spotted the small, Russian Blue behind a community dumpster. Her first instinct was to wrap the tiny feline in a blanket she had in her car that RAR had donated to OPP and drive her to a veterinarian to be treated for pinworms.

Today, Katya lives in her forever home with Jana, a volunteer foster parent for OPP. Jana originally offered to care for the cat temporarily but soon realized she was destined to become a permanent family member. As Jana puts it, Katya has the personality of “a cat, a dog and a toddler rolled into one.” She’s playful, sociable with visitors and loves to play hide-and-seek with the family dogs.

Over the years, Jana and her husband have fostered 34 cats and kittens; Katya was only their second ‘foster failure’ – the affectionate term that’s used to describe the process of fostering an animal that winds up being adopted into the foster family. Foster volunteers like Jana receive food and treats donated through RAR’s partners to help reduce the cost of fostering animals, which in turn helps them find forever homes for more animals.

Since adopting Katya, Jana has fostered many more kittens, now adopted into loving homes of their own. She credits OPP for helping to find so many animals homes and shared that while OPP’s adoption process includes a lengthy vetting process, they work hard to minimize the possibility of adopters later giving up the animals. Jana also said pets offer entertainment, comfort and joy when you need it most. She’s a longtime advocate for animal welfare, as is OPP and the rest of PWNA’s animal-serving partners.

This past year proved especially challenging for our RAR partners who, despite the shortage of both funding and resources brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, continued to serve their communities. Animals will always need our help, and your donation can help take one more animal from the streets to a fur-ever home.

Are you considering adding a furry friend to your family this year? If so, Jana has one important piece of advice: “Adopt, don’t shop!”

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Fueling Winter Warmth for Native Elders

Among the many challenges facing those who live in remote locations is sustained access to winter fuel – a limited-yet-critical resource – and a pervasive need. Across the Northern Plains, a lot of families endure harsh winters in less than ideal housing with few ways – or even no way – to access supplies they need to warm their homes. This is especially true for Elders, who often are without the financial or physical capacity to prepare themselves or their homes for winter weather.

While they do their best to stack their woodpiles and gather other supplies ahead of time, these resources diminish quickly. PWNA provides them with as much support as we can, and we are able to do so only through the generous support of donors, some of whom choose to sponsor an Elder for the winter season. This additional support means the sponsored Elder will not be forced to make the impossible choice between buying food or buying fuel.

Heating costs are also almost always higher on reservations, as many homes aren’t built adequately to warm the home or keep in the heat. Communities go as far as wrapping plastic, blankets or cardboard around their windows to hopefully trap warm air inside. The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example, faces extreme poverty, harsh weather and high suicide rates. Many families are in ‘survival mode’ all winter and simply cannot afford the amount of wood or propane needed to keep their home warm, relying heavily on tribal and nonprofit aid.  

This year is especially challenging, as many reservations are under strict guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19, limiting residents’ abilities to leave their homes in search of fuel. Native Elders are also considered higher risk for the virus and are encouraged to stay home to stay safe – but cold temperatures can be just as detrimental to their health.

While no one has been able to escape the ongoing effects of the pandemic, we can still make a difference to these Elders and families now, even as we continue to support meaningful, long-term solutions. If you would like to learn more about our seasonal weatherization efforts, visit our Emergency Services page.

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Black History Month and the Contributions of Afro-Indigenous Americans

February is Black History Month – a time to reflect on the beauty of African cultures and the contributions of African Americans to the U.S. Previously known as ‘Negro History Week,’ the celebration has grown to encompass a broader Black history. Within that, lies a group of individuals whose history bridges two cultures: the Afro-Indigenous peoples of America.

African-Native Americans are people whose lineage comes from both Native American and African roots, thus creating a subculture that blends the two ethnicities. Afro-Indigenous people primarily came from the southeastern U.S. and found companionship through similar harsh circumstances such as slavery. Unfortunately, they often lacked documentation, resulting in unclear ancestral origins.

Today’s Afro-Indigenous culture is most prevalent in tribes such as Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Wampanoag, among others. The ‘Creole’ identity also stems from Afro-Indigenous culture, as these ethnic groups originated during the colonial era, mainly between West Africans, Europeans and Native American peoples.

One notable individual was William Apess, a Methodist minister with African and Pequot ancestry. While living a life that one might now consider unfortunate and oppressive, Apess was able to provide a lens into a culture that was unheard of at the time and exemplified the many similarities between both cultures.  

The struggles of the African and Indigenous people in the early days of the American colonization were similar. Many were stripped of land and culture, forced into indentured servitude, and rated as second-class citizens. Today, they’re left cherishing what pieces of their cultures remain and, in many cases, reinventing their identities to better fit today’s world.

This Black History Month, we acknowledge the struggles, culture and contributions of Black, Black-Native and Afro-Indigenous peoples.  We are reminded of how far ethnic communities in America have come – and how far we still need to go. I believe we should go hand in hand, celebrating what ties us together, rather than divides us.

Photo credits: Foxx family (Mashpee), 2008. L to R): Anne, Monet, Majai (baby), Aisha, and Maurice Foxx. Photograph by Kevin Cartwright; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian. Used with permission.

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Native News Pick of the Month: The First Native American Cabinet Secretary

A message to our readers: As we continue to share critical news and information about Indian Country, we are excited to share our new ‘Native News Pick of the Month’ column. Each month, our executive leadership team will select one national news story and offer commentary on the topic.

This month, PWNA President and CEO Joshua Arce offers his thoughts on our January ‘Native News Pick of the Month’: In Indian Country, tears, hope and defiance over nomination of first Native Cabinet secretary via The Washington Post.


Representative Deb Haaland’s appointment as Secretary of the Interior is nothing short of a monumental accomplishment for her, Native peoples, and the U.S. as the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary to the President.

The Department of the Interior’s role is to sustain America’s lands, water, wildlife and energy resources; advocate for island communities; and honor U.S. responsibilities to tribal nations. Bureaus such as Land Management, Ocean Energy Management, National Park Service, Indian Education and Indian Affairs all fall under this department, so you can quickly see the vast responsibilities and high expectations of Haaland. Having worked for the Bureau of Indian Education for nearly 12 years, I can attest to the myriad of challenges a federally employed Native American might face, as well as the bureaucratic red tape that can slow the progress of any project.

That said, Indian Country needed a win and Haaland’s new role represents a monumental shift. She will be met with great fanfare, hooping, honor songs and tears of triumph and vindication when she travels throughout Indian Country. One of PWNA’s Board members, Nikki Pitre (Coeur d’Alene), put it best, “To have my daughter see that this is normal, to have a Native woman at the highest level of the U.S. government, is so important.”

I do hope that tribes, pueblos and Alaska Native corporations are patient and show Haaland grace as she becomes entrenched in the magnitude of projects already underway. Her success within Indian Country will depend on who she assigns to work on Native issues – those who are capable, tactful and energized. It will take time to shift the narrative among leaders who view Native peoples as a problem instead of a solution. Haaland is charting a path for the Interior, and much like driving a vast ocean liner, sharp turns and quick shifts in policy will be nearly impossible – but a course correction is achievable. Policies can be changed, and hope can be restored.

Haaland previously said the Trump administration “essentially gutted everything that would help Indian Country to move forward, and I think there’s a lot of repair to be done.”  She cannot unilaterally right those wrongs, but she can find supporters who continue to advocate for policy change and funding. Moreover, we should not forget that Indian Country is not the sole focus of her new role.

Haaland said, “I’ll be fierce for all of us,” and I welcome that trait in advocacy. Perhaps the largest obstacles for Haaland are in the courts, where she’ll face countless federal and circuit judges and a mostly unchallenged, conservative Supreme Court. This may thwart or delay legal remedies to the tribes and what might be most challenging is seeing her name attached to every new lawsuit against the Interior: Everybody vs. Haaland.

Truthfully, this is the embodiment of being ‘Something Else’ in America today – it comes with the territory and no Secretary of the Interior is spared. While Haaland cannot ‘reset’ the troubled relationship between the federal government and Native Americans, her appointment will mark a turning point in helping to fuel future success for every Indigenous person.

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Celebrating the Native Voice in the 2020 Elections

The 2020 elections were one for the history books, with more than two-thirds of registered voters in the U.S. coming out to make their voices heard. For as long as these elections have been held, the Native vote and representation in the political sphere has been minimal. However, the 2020 election was a different story, with many wins for Indian Country.

Native American voter turnout made a significant impact in several states. For example, in Arizona over 60,000 Native votes were counted from just two of the 21 tribes in the state. It is also possible that the high turnout of Native voters swung the state of Wisconsin too. All this goes to show that our Native voices do count.

The 2020 elections were also marked with 14 Native American candidates running for seats at the national level. Two were newly elected to the House of Representatives – Rep. Kai Kahele (Hawaiian, Dem.) and Rep. Yvette Herrell (Cherokee, Rep.). Four Native incumbents kept their seats – Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo),  Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk), Tom Cole (Chickasaw) and Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee), bringing the total Native representation to six members at the national level. Numerous Native candidates also won elections at the state and local levels.

President-Elect Joe Biden, whose inauguration is tomorrow (Jan. 20), has since appointed Congresswoman Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior – the first Native cabinet secretary with power to create change. About her new responsibility for the country’s land and natural resources, Haaland said, “I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet and all of our protected land.”

Haaland also acknowledged, “This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former secretary of the interior [Alexander H.H. Stuart of the 1850s Fillmore administration] once proclaimed it his goal to, quote, ‘civilize or exterminate’ us.”

From within our tribal communities, in the face of disparities, broken treaties and systemic oppression, it can be hard to feel like Native votes and voices matter. Yet, when we come together to make our voices heard and needs known, we see more power to create change than we ever imagined. While Native Americans are often a forgotten minority, we came out in numbers in 2020 that made a difference. Let’s make 2021 historic too.

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Pueblo of Acoma: Lessons Learned about Reservation Healthcare in a Post-COVID-19 World

In the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we all too often hear of the devastation faced by small, rural communities. Recently though, we heard from the Pueblo of Acoma about their successful response to COVID-19. This summary of lessons learned, shared by Tonya Ortiz-Louis, executive director of the Pueblo of Acoma (POA) Health and Human Services, may be helpful to other tribes:  

On Dec. 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported an abnormal viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China that was later found to be a novel coronavirus labeled COVID-19. Less than two months later, on Feb. 26, 2020, the first U.S. case was confirmed. These events soon snowballed, with 7.1 million U.S. cases and 204,328 deaths by Sept. 28, 2020. Researchers have found that only 6% of those deaths were a result of COVID-19 alone – the remaining 94% of individuals had preexisting conditions.

On average, rural populations are older, poorer and suffer from higher rates of chronic illness than their urban peers. Since 80% of older Americans have at least one chronic disease and 77% have at least two or more chronic illnesses, rural populations are at a significantly higher risk of mortality from COVID-19 than urban populations.

The Pueblo of Acoma (Acoma) in New Mexico’s Cibola County is home to 2,784 citizens, with 18% over the age of 50, and 20% of senior citizens living below the poverty line. Fortunately, the tribe’s response efforts have helped to significantly slow the spread – even when compared to the rate of cases in the surrounding county.

Acoma took early measures to deter outside citizens from visiting, enacted universal testing across their population to isolate potential infections and hotspots, and issued orders for social distancing and facial coverings to inhibit the spread. The community cooperated.

POA Health and Human Services also adopted novel healthcare strategies, such as telehealth clinics to limit travel while expanding healthcare access for citizens. By partnering the clinics with a firm that identifies early cases of COVID, treatment by clinicians, hospital staff and primary care physicians could protect the most vulnerable before spread begins. Medical data was shared through mobile and wearable devices for trend analysis through HIPPA-compliant clouds.

This allowed citizens to stay at home, reduced the burden on healthcare providers and lowered costs for patients, providers, local government and Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements.

The U.S. had 2,103 cases per 100,000 people by Sept. 28, 2020 and Cibola County saw about 1,544 cases per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, Acoma had only 1,364 cases per 100,000 – 12% less than the surrounding county.

Acoma ultimately learned it is critical to stay ahead of the curve with telehealth and medical technologies and be proactive in protecting those most vulnerable. The community has established a dedicated, preventative care clinic focused on the vulnerable population – patients with multiple chronic conditions – to proactively monitor and track health changes. They also leveraged the federally funded Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to sustain the clinic even after the CARES funding was exhausted. 

While Acoma was unable to escape the pandemic unscathed, their innovative and proactive approach combatted their rural demographics and lack of healthcare access. If you would like to learn more about what’s working for Acoma Pueblo, feel free to contact Tonya by email at: TLouis@poamail.org.

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PWNA Will Distribute Food Boxes to Native Elders Through Support from the Mannette Bock Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation

In many cultures, Elders are looked to as keepers of wisdom and tradition. This is especially true in First Nation communities, where Elders are regarded with high esteem as teachers and role models for future generations. To help support Native Elders and their communities, PWNA partners with senior centers, food banks and other agencies to provide year-round, immediate relief and establish long-term solutions to challenging issues such as food insecurity.

With the rise of COVID-19 and its devastating effects on tribal communities, PWNA is working with its reservation partners to provide as much relief as possible – including support such as emergency food, water and PPE for Native Elders, who are at a higher risk of infection.

PWNA recently received a grant from the Mannette Bock Fund of the Hawai’i Community Foundation (HCF), a steward of more than 950 funds created by donors who desire to transform lives and improve communities. We were selected to receive this special ‘field of interest’ funding to assist impoverished Native American Elders living in under-resourced tribal communities.

In our 30-year history, PWNA has supported Native nutrition for 2 million Native Elders, children and families, through deliveries of food, drinking water, fresh produce and holiday meals in tribal communities that are food deserts. We’ve also supported community-based training on gardening and healthy meal preparation that uplifts reliance on locally available and traditional foods.

The contribution by HCF will enable us to distribute more than 3,500 emergency food boxes to Native Elders across the Southwest and Northern Plains throughout this year. Each box will contain a week’s supply of high-need, nonperishable foods, hygiene and personal care supplies, and other essentials. These emergency food boxes will allow Elders to stay safe at home, which greatly lowers their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Home delivery and distribution of these boxes is made possible thanks to our reservation partners and their volunteers. These partnerships are central to continuing our dedicated efforts to improve the lives of Native Americans. If you’re interested in joining our mission to enrich the lives of Native peoples living on under-resourced reservations, learn more about our programs and donate today.

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This Year, Resolve to Be More #NativeAware

Last year reminded us to take a step back, express gratitude for what we have and show empathy for those whose struggles are greater than ours. COVID-19 brought to light many difficult truths about the disparities within America’s diverse communities, including for our Native American population. Now, many more people are paying attention to these struggles for the first time and want to know what they can do to help.

As we embark on 2021 together, we want to encourage you to add one resolution to your list: Be more #NativeAware.

Did you know Native Americans historically have been undercounted in the census? Or that there are multiple voting barriers for Native Americans that largely stem from living in remote, rural areas? Last year, Native communities came together to ensure their voices were heard so that they might have a chance to address the most critical issues facing their communities. For example:  

  • 23% of Native families experience low food security, meaning they have inconsistent access to enough food to lead a healthy, active life.
  • Native Americans endure a legacy of healthcare disparities, fueling high rates of diabetes, cancer, tuberculosis and infant mortality.
  • Only 13% of Native students hold a college degree, roughly half the rate of Caucasian Americans.
  • Up to 61% of Native children live in poverty or low-income households, and 29% of employed Native Americans live below poverty level.
  • Suicide rates for Native Americans between the ages of 15-24 are three times the national average — and the second leading cause of death for their age group.
  • 90,000 Native Americans are homeless, and 40% live in unsafe or substandard housing.

The fight against COVID-19 is not yet over and we want to continue to support our reservation partners while helping to bring attention to the issues that matter most so that others can help end the cycle of poverty in Indian Country.

So, how can you be more #NativeAware in 2021?

  • Check out our YouTube channel to learn more about how PWNA helps Native communities.
  • Read up on food insecurity, animal welfare, and the education barriers unique to Native American students.
  • Purchase a Native Aware t-shirt to support PWNA’s ongoing work with the tribes.
  • Tune into our “Realities Video Series with Wes Studi” and share what you learn. Be sure to include #NativeAware in your post.
  • Link your Amazon Smile account to Partnership With Native Americans so that a portion of every item you purchase on Amazon helps support our mission.
  • Visit our Native Aware site to learn more about the realities Native Americans are struggling with and how you can help. And share the page!
  • Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and use #NativeAware and the URL www.nativeaware.org to help spread the word!
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