“Native Americans now have the highest vaccination rates of any major racial or ethnic group in the United States,” said Gustavo Arellano, host of The L.A Times in their most recent podcast update.
In many Native American communities, there are housing shortages so multi-generational family housing is very common. This places family members that have underlying health conditions at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, the virus hit the Navajo Nation especially hard, with more than 830 cases and 30 deaths as of April 21.
“Compared to white people, Native Americans are almost twice as likely to get infected and more than three times as likely to be hospitalized,” said the L.A. Times Seattle bureau chief, Richard Read, in the interview.
The Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah had more than 32 thousand COVID-19 cases and 14 hundred deaths. This COVID-19 death rate was four times the national average, which is 1,010, according to the CDC.
“On health issues this stress [of the vaccine] is especially strong because of all these atrocities [for example] forced sterilizations of Native American women in the 1970’s and other events that are in their minds,” said Read. He added that when the vaccines were initially released, Native Americans were suspicious of the vaccine developed by the federal government. Such doubt results from a long history of broken promises from colonial times up through the present.
National Geographic states, “To many Native Americans, the history of European settlement has been a history of wary welcoming, followed by opposition, defeat, near-extinction, and, now, a renaissance. To Europeans and Americans, it has included everything from treatment of Native American nations as equals (or near-equals) to assimilation to exile to near-genocide, often simultaneously.”
However, Native American communities remember the devastation dealt to them from epidemics, like smallpox and other illnesses, Read reminds us. Thus, the threat from the COVID-19 pandemic is something that they have taken very seriously. He added that respect and concern for their elders has been a primary motivation for many in the community to get vaccinated: in order to protect them.
“I can’t speak for all tribes but the Navajo nation is taking precautions to keep their elders safe,” said Kummen Louis, assistant director of the Multicultural Student Service. “We do what we can to protect our elders because they hold our culture and our language.”
In order to educate Native Americans about the vaccine, tribal leaders sent trusted individuals to talk to the community. Read mentioned the head public-health nurse at the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana, Kathleen Adams, would walk around with a cooler full of vaccines, and attempt to persuade people to get vaccinated.
“As vaccination rates have risen, hospitalizations have slowed,” said Read. “In these tight-knit communities word travels and it leads to more people getting vaccinated.”
Now they see it as a cause for more people to get vaccinated and they are spreading the word out to other communities and telling them how they were affected by COVID-19. Ever since they got the vaccine their community is getting better, according to Read.
“35 new cases, 31,248 recoveries, and no recent deaths related to COVID-19, 38 communities identified with uncontrolled spread,” stated the Navajo Nation in their press release on Sept. 7. “The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. If you have a loved one who has not received the vaccine, please encourage them to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.”