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Organizations On Crow Reservation Prep For Coronavirus

Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
Peggy Wellknown Buffalo eats at Center Pole, her nonprofit on the Crow reservation.

As organizations on the Crow Reservation in south-central Montana prepare coronavirus contingency plans, some tribal members say the threat of coronavirus is still too distant to be an immediate source of concern.

Crow tribal government is in contact with state public health officials and, like other tribes in the state, are preparing for the possibility of the coronavirus reaching their communities.

Seventy-year-old Peggy Wellknown Buffalo sits in a big, cushy chair in Center Pole, her nonprofit coffee shop and soup kitchen in Garryowen. A few people eat from a lunch spread of beans, salad, and pie.

Wellknown Buffalo opens a plastic bag full of dried sage and piles the herb into a half shell.

“I sure inhale this stuff,” she says.

She lights a match and touches it to the sage, which catches fire and fills the room with a sweet, woody smell. 

Wellknown Buffalo says people in the community already take preventative measures like washing their hands, and sage is one of the traditional medicines that strengthens the immune system and protects against sicknesses like the coronavirus.

“We don’t know if it’s gonna work, but it may,” she says. “We’ve survived through the smallpox. We’ve survived through a lot of diseases the settlers brought in, so we’re gonna survive this one with our medicine.”

She says people in the community are dealing with more urgent concerns on a day-to-day basis than the possible spread of coronavirus, like hunger, low employment and housing issues.

“If when you mean, what are you doing to get prepared, we’ve always lived in a crisis situation, so we always have to be ready for the worst,” says Wellknown Buffalo.

At the same time, she says she’s worried about what Center Pole would do if there’s an outbreak of coronavirus in Billings. That’s where the nonprofit gets most of the food it gives out and where it would probably pick up things like soap and hand sanitizer in the case of a breakout.

“If someone catches it in Billings, all us rez people have to stay home, so I better have something here, because that would probably wipe us out totally,” she says.

Services across the Crow Reservation are gearing up.

Ed Eastman, public safety director for the Crow Tribe, says tribal administration has advised people to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer on social media, an important communication tool on the rural Crow reservation.

Eastman says the tribe has been in close contact with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and the state. 

“We’re pretty much in the same boat as everybody else,” he says. “All this stuff is totally new to us.”

Like the tribe, a local Crow Agency elder home says it’s been in talks with the state.

At the Awe Kualawaache Care Center reception desk, HR coordinator Katie Seibel takes out a huge binder and flips to an email calling for a briefing between care centers and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services earlier in the week. 

She says the state gave Awe Kualawaache and other care centers the rundown of what they were required to do, along with a timeline and list of supply vendors for standard things like gloves and masks as well as for equipment like ventilators. 

“We wanted to get right on that and be ahead of the curve with everyone and get some supplies ordered because they were worried a little bit about can we get the supplies if everyone’s doing it, and so we just followed their lead."

Seibel says the center runs its staff through emergency preparedness at least twice a year and this is business as usual in many ways, but with more stringent screening for symptoms.

Community members in Crow Agency sound wary, but otherwise unconcerned. 

At a local Conoco, people stop for gas and snacks and a group of kids passes through the parking lot riding tricycles and bouncing balls on the cement.

Twenty-seven-year-old McDonald's worker Kateri Davis says she’s not too worried at this point.

“I don’t know. It never reached us any of these weird, ebola and all that crazy stuff, so I don’t think no one’s taking it serious,” she says.

Other people express concern for their children, like 45-year-old certified nurse assistant Carrie Other Medicine, who comes out of the gas station store to meet her family in their car.

“I’ve been telling my kids to wash their hands,” she says. “I just said ‘keep washing your hands everywhere you go,’ that’s all I said. Still living life like normal. Not too scared. We’re Crows. If it takes us, it takes us, that’s all I can say.”
Other reservations and tribal governments across the state are also stepping up prevention measures. The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes say they recently spoke with the Indian Health Service and other agencies.

Charkoosta News reports Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are also restricting work-related travel by tribal employees to known hot spots like Washington State, California, and Oregon.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.