Other tribes are reporting similar numbers. By late March, Blackfeet Nation in Montana reported that 95 percent of its population had received its first vaccine dose. The Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation’s vaccine drive went so well that leaders offered surplus doses to a neighboring school district. The Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi, with 70 percent of its eligible population fully vaccinated, is nearing herd immunity.
Tribal leaders attribute this success to several factors, including tribal sovereignty, which gave tribes the flexibility to create their own methods of distributing the vaccine, and cultural values that prioritize elders and community.
Soon after the vaccine became available in the winter, local leaders worked with the Indian Health Service, a federal agency that provides health care to American Indians and Alaska Natives, to distribute doses to Native American reservations in hard-to-reach areas.
In Alaska, some vaccine doses were transported to rural communities by dog sled. In Navajo Nation, doses were driven by police escort “to every corner,” Loretta Christensen, acting chief medical officer of the IHS, said. The idea, she said, was to “take your population and meet them where they are, wherever that is.”
To encourage the community to take the vaccine, the Association of American Indian Physicians launched a social media campaign showing Native doctors getting the vaccine. Navajo Nation’s Nez shared photos of himself receiving a shot on Facebook, and Gen Z Native youth have spread the word on TikTok.
Some leaders said children encouraged their parents to get the shot. “The parents who were on the on the fence about taking the vaccine — they took it because their child wanted the vaccine,” Nez said. “I think the young people today were open and willing to take the vaccine because they missed school here on the Navajo Nation.”
Tribes tried to reach people by offering private appointments, drive-up appointments and mass-vaccination events. In April, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and IHS teamed up with the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe to offer a mobile vaccination site, no registration required, in the parking lot of the Royal River Casino, according to Keloland TV.
“We wanted to make sure that it was more accessible to everybody, not just in the clinics or the hospitals,” FEMA Operations Task Force Lead for Mobile Vaccination Unit Operations Patricia Pudwill told the station.
Local leaders said that many Indigenous people viewed the vaccination as a way to protect not only themselves, but their families, which reduced rates of vaccine hesitancy. An Urban Indian Health Institute survey found that 74 percent of Native Americans believe that getting vaccinated is their responsibility to their community.
“At the heart of it is a collective responsibility to protect the entire community,” Victoria O’Keefe, a Mathuram Santosham endowed chair in Native American health at Johns Hopkins University, said.
Early on, public health officials worried that Native Americans would be vaccine-hesitant after centuries of mistreatment, starting when European migrants imported smallpox and killed 95 percent of Native Americans in the process. In the 1830s, the U.S. government vaccinated Native Americans against smallpox, then pushed Indigenous people off their land.
“Native Americans have good reason to be suspicious of medical research,” said Siobhan Wescott, the co-director of Indians Into Medicine at the University of North Dakota. “But this is a global pandemic.”
The emphasis on community and cultural preservation extended to whom tribal leaders prioritized for shots. In rolling out the vaccinations, Cherokee Nation prioritized speakers of the tribe’s native language. There are approximately 2,000 speakers of the Cherokee language, and a tri-county council declared a state of emergency for the language in 2019.
“Our tribal languages reflect our worldviews, our traditions, our practices and they also provide an intergenerational connection to our ancestors, our family members and to our future generations,” said O’Keefe, who is a Cherokee Nation citizen and descended from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. “So that’s why tribal languages in particular are really important to protect.”
Public health officials hope the rising vaccine rate will protect Native populations, which were particularly hard-hit by the virus.
Nationwide, Indigenous people are 3.3 times as likely to have died of covid-19 as White and Asian people when age is taken into account, according to a March report from the APM Research Lab.
Existing inequities in health care, a lack of basic services like running water, and an underfunded IHS contribute to staggering loss among a population that reports higher rates of diabetes and heart disease, which put its members at higher risk of developing severe covid.
“There’s a number of health inequities that are really rooted in social determinants of health, and a lot of those health inequities stem from colonization and intergenerational trauma and ongoing structural racism,” O’Keefe said.
But tribal leaders say they hope the successful vaccination efforts will change the narrative and highlight the power of Indigenous people to protect each other.
“I know that the media comes in and paints us as this poor, poor Navajo society that got hit hard. But there’s a flip side to this,” Nez said. “There’s a story of resilience and overcoming in the midst of a pandemic.”