By Sister Patrice Colletti, SDS
A number of folks have been asking me how the COVID virus is impacting us here on the Lake Traverse Reservation.
Our reservation, along with the other reservations in South Dakota, has taken the initiative to implement mandatory stay-at-home for tribal members. Now, remember, South Dakota is one of the handful of states in which the governor has refused to require a state-wide stay-at-home. But, our Tribal Council declared a stay at home order back on April 1 until at least the end of April. They also ordered the tribal schools to teach remotely only, and they closed all the businesses owned and run by the tribe (except the tribal grocery store, gas stations and heating fuel).
Of course, these closures have resulted in over 4,500 households losing the sustaining income of jobs, and that has been rough.
Aware of the impact of unemployment on food access, the school has stepped up its meals-for-kids program. The tribal buffalo ranch butchered ten buffalo and distributed the meat to tribal members in need. A food service provider/company in Minnesota has donated 30,000 pounds of frozen foods to be distributed to elders, especially those elders who are raising grandchildren (many!) The tribe’s Elderly Food Program has increased its services from 100 elders per day to over 300 elders per day. Both the Sisseton Food Pantry (run by the Interfaith Ministry group) and the Tribal Food Pantry (run by the tribe) have more than tripled their distribution and are asking those who can donate to do so.
South Dakota has had a lot of COVID cases down in Sioux Falls (you probably read about that on the news- it’s the meat packing plant which has more than half of SD’s cases). Sioux Falls is 3 hours south of us. But even “a lot” of cases means just over 2,000 so far. Compared to New York, where my sister and her husband live, where there are over 20,000 cases just in their county, our county’s count (4 cases, all recuperated) is minuscule. Although the risk is mathematically quite low, there’s a strong social effort for folks to wear masks, etc.
There is also the very real concern that once the virus arrives among the tribal members, it is likely to spread quickly and be deadly. Many families live in over-crowded, multi-generational households that are even larger now, since everyone seemed to take the kids and move “back home” to grandma’s as the reservation started its “stay at home.” Plus, access to good healthcare has been a struggle on this and on each of the South Dakota reservations, with the Indian Health Service struggling to meet needs in a normal year. Everyone knows it will quickly become even harder once COVID arrives.
But for now, folks continue to “hunker down.” We teachers continue to prepare take-home packets for all 700 kids at our school and put clever pictures on our school’s Facebook website. Our tribal families continue to be as resilient as is possible given the circumstances.