Mar 11, 2021 - Health

Native American tribes lead the way on coronavirus vaccinations

Photo of a masked medical worker getting the COVID vaccine shot

In Shiprock, N.M., Northern Navajo Medical Center staff were among the first in the Navajo Nation to receive Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinations. Photo: Micah Garen/Getty Images

Native American tribes are pulling off many of the most successful coronavirus vaccination campaigns in the U.S., bucking stereotypes about tribal governments.

The big picture: Despite severe technological barriers, some tribes are vaccinating their members so efficiently, and at such high rates, that they've been able to branch out and offer coronavirus vaccines to people outside of their tribes.

Why it matters: Native Americans are one of the most at-risk groups for contracting and dying from the coronavirus. But tribal nations have rallied to get members vaccinated and helped nearby communities while major cities have struggled with rollouts.

Details: Tribes, which are sovereign nations that can set their own eligibility criteria, immediately got doses and launched vigorous campaigns on vaccines.

  • The White Earth Nation in Minnesota was so successful in early vaccinations that it immediately began vaccinating non-tribal members, Minnesota Public Radio reports.
  • The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado last week said after it has vaccinated 1,900 of its tribal members and staff it will offer 2,000 doses to the general public.
  • Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, the tribe of Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland, also started offering doses to nearby residents after tribal members received theirs. Several tribes in Oklahoma have, too.
  • An AP analysis of federal data showed Native Americans were getting vaccinated at a rate higher than all but five states by February's end.

What they're saying: "White Earth has done a phenomenal job, vaccinating nearly 90% of elders in Mahnomen County, extending eligibility to Native and non-Native adults in the community ... I am proud to be a White Earth member," Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan tweeted after getting her vaccine.

  • "This shows when we state and federal governments trust tribal governments to take care of their communities, they go above and beyond for their members and neighbors," Flanagan, who lost her brother to the coronavirus, told Axios.

Between the lines: The early success is even more impressive when taking into account the dismal state of internet access on tribal lands.

  • 2019 FCC report shows that 36% of housing units on tribal land have no access to broadband — compared to 8% on non-tribal land.

Three Indigenous principles have helped provide the impetus to get vaccinated, according to activist Allie Young, a citizen of the Navajo Nation:

  • Recognize how Native Americans' actions will impact the next seven generations.
  • Act in honor of ancestors who fought to ensure their survival and elders who carry on their traditions and cultures.
  • Hold on to ancestral knowledge in the ongoing fight to protect Mother Earth.

The bottom line: The vaccination campaign worked largely through word of mouth and tribal outreach.

  • But chronic underfunding, mismanagement at the federally run Indian Health Service and poor technological infrastructure still mean that Native Americans often can't access telemedicine and other important services.

"We knew how to reach our population, despite these obstacles, because we've been having to overcome these obstacles for some time already," said Abigail Echo-Hawk, Seattle Indian Health Board's chief research officer and member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. "That doesn't mean you let it continue."

Go deeper