When the Blackfeet Nation closed its borders in the hopes of keeping COVID-19 out, the tribe suffered economically. But the virus still found its way in, sometimes with fatal effects. Kylie Mohr reports on why Blackfeet residents are worried as cases spike for the first time in months.
"I couldn't sit up without losing breath."
That’s ShyAnn Raining Bird, a 29-year old mom and political organizer who lives on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Mont. She tested positive for coronavirus in early July. Eight days later, she found herself in an emergency room on the reservation.
"I was her first COVID patient, so the nurse kind of freaked out. She was like, ‘You need to try to take breaths.’ And I was trying, I was trying. And she was like, ‘Honey, you are getting blue. And once you go blue, there's nothing I can do.’"
As Raining Bird’s condition deteriorated, doctors wanted to fly her to the nearest intensive care unit in Kalispell, 100 miles away. But the weather and wind didn’t cooperate. So she was rushed into an ambulance and sped through mountains two hours away.
"At one point, I completely stopped getting oxygen."
Native Americans make up less than 7 percent of Montana’s population, but account for 39 percent of deaths from the virus. And nationwide, the percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives with COVID who require hospitalization is five times higher than that of white people.
"You know, Native people don't have health issues because they're Native American, right? They have health issues because they have poor health care," says Rosalyn LaPier, a Blackfeet and Metis associate professor at the University of Montana. She grew up mostly on the Blackfeet reservation.
"It's the underlying health issues that are exacerbated by a system that is not actually working to address those health issues because of chronic underfunding."
According to the Center for American Indian Health, Native Americans already had higher rates of infectious disease severity and death than any other population in the country. That’s prior to the pandemic. Dr. Teresa Brockie, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, works at the Center and says there needs to be change within Indian Health Service — that’s the agency responsible for providing federal health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives.
"I think those tribes that receive, primarily, their health care through Indian Health Service, the ice has gotten thinner. And outcomes, health outcomes are getting worse, life expectancy is decreasing."
Brockie is a member of the White Clay Nation and grew up on the Fort Belknap Reservation. She thinks tribes in Montana like the Blackfeet and others around the country were smart to act decisively with border closures when the pandemic hit.
"I don't want to say comfortable, but we're used to crisis. So we seem to pull together best in crisis."
Back in Browning, Raining Bird initially distanced from her family when she had COVID. Her husband visited her from the other side of a window, so their child would have at least one healthy parent. But she needed help. So when she asked her mother to move in, Raining Bird knew the risks. COVID eventually infected all three generations — grandmother, mother and child. Neither Raining Bird’s daughter, 11, nor mother, 59, were hospitalized. But Raining Bird says she’s still dealing with lingering effects like joint pain and weak lungs.
"I actually am just now being able to go on walks again and not get short of breath."
The fear that what happened to Raining Bird could happen to tribal elders is what led the Blackfeet tribal council to shut down their borders back in March. Tribal council member Stacy Keller says with Native Americans disproportionately affected by the virus nationwide, it was the right call.
"I think it's probably the best decision that we made"
Robert DesRosier is the Blackfeet Tribes’ COVID-19 incident commander. He said back in September that the tribe was successful in delaying the health impacts of the pandemic.
"We were able to hold off that virus and keep it out of the community for over 100 days here. I think we went 105 days without having a local case."
But that hasn’t lasted. After 83 active cases were announced September 24, the tribe issued a two-week, reservation-wide shutdown. Tribal chairman Tim Davis stressed the urgency of the situation during a Facebook Live event.
"Please help us get this under control so we don't have to bury some of our people. We don’t want that."
Days later, active cases soared to 112, and hit 390 by mid-October. As of October 26, COVID claimed the lives of 18 tribal community members on and off the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The reservation’s stay at home order is now extended into November as new cases in the region grow at one of the fastest rates in the state.