In December 2020, Rose Lane was about to become the first member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians to get the COVID-19 vaccination. And Lane was scared.
The vaccine was new, and Lane was well aware of medical mistreatment of Native Americans in the past. This included British colonists distributing smallpox-infected blankets (aka “pock blankets”) in an effort to wipe out Native American populations. More recently, the forced sterilization of Native American women by the U.S. government in the 1970s is a fresh memory for many.
But as the Tribe’s Logistics Deputy for the COVID-19 response, Lane knew all eyes were on her. She also lives with her parents, both in their 70s, and feared for their vulnerability to the more severe effects of the virus.
So, Lane got the shot.
“I cried after getting it,” she said. “Many of us did – out of a sense of relief, a little bit of fear and a lot of pride. I felt like it was the beginning of the end.”
Lane now knows, of course, it wasn’t anywhere close to the end of the pandemic, but it was a major milestone in the Tribe’s effort to fight the pandemic. It was a challenge they took on the same way they’ve taken on many others – with innovation, generosity and their own unique culture.
“When I say culture, I don’t think of drumming or my wedding moccasins. I think about the intrinsic value and roles I’ve been taught from birth,” Lane said. “It’s the Tribe’s culture to gift, to be generous, to take care of community. If we can keep people safe, it’s our role to do that.”
In the earliest days of the pandemic, when vaccines were just a hope on the horizon and the virus was a mystery to many, Tribal health care workers reached out to the community. They started with the elders, calling each to explain what COVID-19 was, the symptoms, how they could catch it and how they might pass it to others.
When someone in their community got sick with COVID-19, Tribal health care workers provided special “quarantine” housing for them to keep vulnerable folks living with them safe.
They also worked to secure things like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and emergency food supplies, as well as medical supplies such as thermometers and oxygen monitors. When people needed such things but had no way of getting them themselves, the Tribe’s “ground team” picked up, packaged and delivered whatever they could.
“We had teams of people sewing masks, not only for the Tribe but the community,” said Ruby Moon, Tribal community health care director. “We hoteled people; we bought groceries for people, also culturally important things – from homemade healing salve to medicinal plants to smudge kits.”
They set up a hot line to help people with everything from filling out unemployment papers to finding their way to the food bank.
They had a system down.
Then came the September 2020 wildfires.
Even as the Tribe readied for its own possible evacuation, Siletz became an evacuation site itself. The Tribe set up its own shelter but also partnered with the city of Newport, which set up sites for people to shelter individually. Moon recalls evacuees sleeping in tents on Newport ball fields, then traveling inland to the Siletz shelter for food, showers and a place to wash their clothes.
Three days later the fire danger was over, and the Tribe was back to taking on the pandemic.
“You just did it, and moved on to the next thing,” Moon said. “It was amazing.”
When the vaccine rollout began in December 2020, the Tribe’s health care workers were the first to get their shots, followed by Tribal elders. (As sovereign nations, Tribes did not have to follow the state’s guide for which groups could get vaccinated at which time.)
Like Lane, some Tribal members were worried about the vaccine. To help ease their concerns, the health care team videotaped Tribal employees getting vaccinated so members could watch and see how the process worked.
While some members remained frightened, others were so eager to get their shots they waited for hours. At first, the Friday drive-through vaccine clinics drew about 50 cars, but every week the numbers grew. And they kept growing.
“That went on for months,” Lane said. “I think in March or April, we reached a day when 600 cars came through the clinic. It didn’t matter how cold or rainy or windy it was. People were so thankful they cried. We had Tribal members fly in from other parts of the country and drive here for the vaccine. That’s how scarce the shot was.”
Lane recalls one day going home and being so sore she couldn’t bend to sit.
“You would arrive at 7 a.m., set up the tents, get the paperwork out, get the traffic cones out, get the rain gear out and then you would start at the tent and walk the line (of cars) down the hill to Siletz,” Lane recalled. “The most steps I had in one day on Fitbit was 18,000. I felt a weird mix of pride and fury. I hurt so bad.”
Some days, the clinic workers drove to Salem, Eugene and Portland to vaccinate Tribal members and their families who lived there. Once the Tribal members were vaccinated, the Tribe offered vaccines to the people in Lincoln County and later, partnered with Centro De Ayuda, a Newport nonprofit offering free help to the Latina community.
“Centro De Ayuda has an amazing volunteer force,” Lane said. “Their board and volunteers recognized the community’s needs and reached out to us. They sent interpreters who worked shoulder to shoulder with staff. It was a natural fit. Our paths were tied together by our dedication to our communities. That shared understanding and dedication made our partnership seamless.”
The efforts of the Siletz community reflect a fortitude and dedication to one another that all tribes share. The nine federally recognized Tribes of Oregon and the Urban Indian Health Program, as well as many other organizations serving tribal communities, continue to work extremely hard to vaccinate their community members.
These days, the small group of Siletz Tribe health care workers look back on those days in amazement, but they also still bear the burden of the endless days of work and worry.
“It was like lightning in jar,” Lane said. “We caught it. But if leadership had not been in their seat, it would not have gone down that way. Resiliency is in our DNA. If you are a tribal member you are a descendant of someone who survived genocide, oppression, termination and restoration of Tribal status.”
Lane says strength and community have always been part of the Tribe’s legacy, and the pandemic put those values to the test.
“I have never worked so hard physically and mentally in my life,” Lane said. “It bonded me to my team and a shared identity of values and ethics that will be with me my whole life. It was beautiful and one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced.”