As COVID-19 started to bear down on the United States, the sheer scope of the global pandemic sparked concern among Native communities. Those impacted the hardest would be the most culturally significant. The keepers of stories. The purveyors of tradition, songs, religion, and language. The elders. Stark historical reminders of diseases wiping out Native folks in the United States loomed as both cautionary tales and anecdotes of resilience. Lack of resources and isolation in rural areas exacerbated conditions in tribal communities once the pandemic finally reached their lands. Those residing in Montana are only now witnessing a rapid rise in the number of cases: the Northern Cheyenne tribe located in Lame Deer, Montana.
On March 15, the president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Rynalea Peña, issued a statement of emergency order, followed by guidelines that included a reservation-wide curfew of 10 PM. The order came a day after Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s March 14 executive order declaring a state of emergency due to COVID-19. Much was still unknown about the virus to average residents going about their daily life. The Northern Cheyenne tribe formed an incident command task force and held regular meetings and provided the public with the most up-to-date information. Like many communities at the onset of the pandemic, there was an air of uncertainty and fear. Tribal members became hyper-aware of the historical implications of disease ripping through Native people. Many in the community leaned more toward traditional teachings and religion to cope.
Tribal citizens formed volunteer groups modeled after traditional cultural forms of policing. These included community leaders knowledgeable in Cheyenne ceremonial practices and way of life. Since these positions are traditionally only held by men, clashes arose between leadership of the citizen groups and the Northern Cheyenne tribal president, who is a woman. Recognizing the need to modernize cultural practices that are heavily out of date, leadership of these groups took a different approach by incorporating women into their traditionally male-only patrols and rebranding.
Referring to themselves as “The People’s Camp,” volunteers patrolled the streets encouraging members to adhere to the curfew and other precautions that had been put in place to combat the pandemic. The operation was faced with daily policing situations where they’d be called by community members to respond to incidents and to act in a conflict resolution capacity.
Their presence was generally accepted as necessary in the absence of fully staffed law enforcement and detention facilities located on the reservation.
The tribe already had inadequate law enforcement resources well before the pandemic. This has largely been blamed for lackluster investigations into missing and murdered persons from the reservation. The crises didn’t slow down once the pandemic hit. In addition to responding to the COVID-19 crises, law enforcement found themselves stretched thin when one young man was discovered deceased under questionable circumstances and another was killed during a fight—video of which quickly circulated online. On July 22, Peña sent an inquiry to Montana Sens. Jon Tester (D) and Steve Daines (R), and Rep. Greg Gianforte (R) requesting their assistance in bringing justice to a number of deaths that have occured on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
Without the numbers within law enforcement to properly patrol the reservation, the People’s Camp set in motion a plan designed to protect the community, according to volunteer LeVonna Littlebird-Graham. Among these provisions were roadblocks and checkpoints designed to keep outsiders from entering the reservation without having business there. Occasionally, the People’s Camp encountered residents in violation of reservation law that prohibits alcohol on the tribe’s lands. According to Littlebird-Graham, The People’s Camp regularly came across alcohol-related situations and routinely ensured that intoxicated individuals made it home safely or had a safe place to go. That all changed one night when an intoxicated resident became violent with patrol members, who responded in self-defense to subdue the man.
Following this incident, Littlebird-Graham said the People’s Camp had lost support from the tribal government. A paid security group was formed to take over responsibility, with one checkpoint set up to monitor traffic coming and going. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe received almost $19.5M through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and began hiring additional members to work on the security detail. Community members had mixed reactions about which group better served the public. While the new security detail offered new jobs and a more streamlined approach, some members felt that the cultural aspect of The People’s Camp made them better suited.
The People’s Camp never received compensation and are today still volunteering to provide assistance to tribal members as needed, according to Littlebird-Graham. This includes delivering groceries, offering financial assistance, scouting vacant locations that can be used for houseless tribal members, and fostering community outreach. Tribal members were also given one-time direct relief payments from the CARES Act funding, which some used to purchase items for more vulnerable residents.
On July 14, the Northern Cheyenne Board of Health released a statement announcing the arrival of the first case of COVID-19. Practices had become relaxed within the community because the pandemic hadn’t arrived right away. As cases began spreading, charities and community members scrambled to meet the needs of citizens. The lack of resources available on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation make normal life particularly difficult. There are approximately 11,266 enrolled members with just 5,012 residing on tribal lands.
Because senior citizens are among the most vulnerable, much attention was given to the reservation’s senior living center. Visitors were barred from entering and community members began rallying to provide adequate resources to the senior residents. A Facebook campaign for “COVID-19 assistance for Northern Cheyenne elders” has raised around $11,000 to provide elderly residents and their caretakers with needed supplies and services. The Northern Cheyenne Elderly Program also instituted a pen pal program for residents remaining in quarantine and limiting their exposure to the virus.
The most current information lists 716 cumulative cases and 26 deaths. Among those deaths have been community members actively promoting and teaching tribal culture. On Oct. 8, the state of Montana reported 615 new COVID-19 cases, with four additional deaths. The state’s death toll at the time of reporting is 197. Local media reported the spike in cases can be partially attributed to “social distancing fatigue” and social events with a lead epidemiologist citing infection rates among people in the age group 20-39 being responsible for 40% of all COVID-19 cases in the state.
The Montana National Guard has since been dispatched to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation to assist with the COVID-19 response. The local Boys and Girls Club has been putting together food baskets for the public during the pandemic. The National Guard provides assistance and support with operations such as these. The reservation sits on rural land and reaching all of the residents provides additional challenges. Volunteers from within the community make rounds delivering groceries and other needed supplies to citizens to encourage staying home. The tribal government issued a stay-at-home order on Oct. 5 instructing the community to “shelter in place.” The new measures include a daily curfew from 6 PM to 6 AM and weekend lockdowns of the reservation. The order will remain effective until the total number of COVID-19 cases reaches 50 or below for 30 consecutive days.
Like the rest of the country, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe also has tribal elections in the midst of the pandemic. This has also offered the people a new opportunity to assess a candidate’s priorities based on pandemic response, particularly in contrast to other Indigenous communities whose efforts have had some success, such as the Navajo Nation. The presidential candidates face a new level of scrutiny over what many in the community view as a botched COVID-19 response. Supporters of The People’s Camp have also begun looking at which candidates will work with the group or recognize their influence. Many of their initiatives have been popular with community members who view disorganized leadership on COVID-19 as the culmination of decades of neglect.
The current surge of cases in Montana has many concerned that it’s just the beginning. For 18 consecutive days in September, the Northern Cheyenne tribe suffered loss to the virus. For now, deaths have slowed down and given the community hope that public health information in conjunction with community cooperation will have an impact in fighting COVID-19.