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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

The Blackfeet Reservation Is Reopening Its Roads After Vaccination Success

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Right now about 16% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but many Native American communities have achieved much higher rates. Among them is the Blackfeet tribe in Montana. They now have fully vaccinated 75% of their population, and nearly all of them have received at least one shot. Aaron Bolton from Montana Public Radio has been following their efforts and joins us now.

Welcome.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So does this mean life on the Blackfeet reservation is starting to feel sort of like the before times again?

BOLTON: Yes and no. About two weeks ago, the tribe started allowing businesses like restaurants, campgrounds and hotels to reopen, albeit with some limitations on capacity. And the tribe is maintaining the requirement that everyone wear masks in indoor public spaces until further notice. Still, there's huge relief about the economy getting back to normal. The reservation borders Glacier National Park on the east side, which attracts about 3 million people a year to the area. So even though the park has stayed open, the tribe controls the roads to the entrances on its side. And last year, they decided to close those roads to visitors to protect tribal members from nonresidents who might carry the virus. A couple of weeks ago, the tribe announced it's reopening the roads because of the high vaccination rates on the reservation. Here's Angelika Harden-Norman, who owns an art gallery on the reservation.

ANGELIKA HARDEN-NORMAN: I think everybody will breathe - just (sighing), you know? That's really good news.

BOLTON: Harden-Norman says she was able to stay afloat with business grants from the state and the tribe, but she lost her husband, Darrell Norman, to cancer last year. Darrell was a Blackfeet artist and ran their gallery and lodging business. Harden-Norman says she needs to have a season this year to keep the business going.

CHANG: So how do you think the tribe has been so successful in vaccinating its population - I mean, compared to the U.S. as a whole?

BOLTON: An NPR analysis found that, nationwide, we've seen tribes generally getting their members vaccinated much faster than the U.S. as a whole. A big reason cited by people we've spoken to is because these are generally smaller populations in tight-knit communities, and there's a health care system that's relatively easy for people to plug into. Also, here in Montana, the state prioritized Native Americans for vaccine because it's a population that's been hit disproportionately hard by the virus. The Blackfeet reservation has only about 7,000 people that are 16 and older - so eligible to get a COVID vaccine. And the tribe is getting vaccine supply from both the state and the U.S. Indian Health Service, so supply and distribution are really good for such a small community where it's easy to get word out to those who want a vaccine. Also, worth noting that the Blackfeet, like several other tribes, have now opened some vaccination clinics to non-Natives as well.

CHANG: And real quick, beyond the tribe reopening roads to Glacier National Park, how is day-to-day life on the reservation returning to normal now?

BOLTON: Tribal officials I spoke with said tribal members here just can't wait to get out of their homes like the rest of us.

CHANG: Yeah.

BOLTON: But there are others who are pretty nervous about the reopening.

CHANG: That is Aaron Bolton of Montana Public Radio.

Thank you so much.

BOLTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEA GIRLS SONG, "DAISY DAISY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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