TULSA, Okla. — "To be on the list, to be the first to receive something… to me it just shows that the tribe is putting our elders and speakers in the proper place,” said Robert Daugherty, Cherokee speaker (language elder).
The Cherokee Nation is one of several tribes placing a high priority on its elders and native language speakers, making them the first to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
Daugherty is one of only 2,000 out of 385,000 Cherokee citizens who still speak the native language… that’s less than one percent.
“From the very beginning of this, we knew that COVID was adversely affecting elders more than others and that’s a big part of our culture, and we really wanted to be able to protect the language,
protect our communities,” Brian Hail, deputy executive director of Cherokee Nation Health Services.
That’s why Hail said the tribe knew they had to act fast.
"We actually have one in place so that we have the ability to store this vaccine at the minus 80 degrees celsius that is required and we have additional freezers on the way,” Hail said.
Thanks to the CARES Act fundig, the Cherokee Nation already has one freezer and will soon have four more — two in Tahlequah, one in Winita, Muskogee and Sallisaw. The new outpatient health clinic in Tahlequah, which opened only last year, has been repurposed to serve the pandemic's needs.
Special gloves and face shields have also been purchased with CARES Act funds to keep healthcare workers safe as they prepare the vaccine at the clinic.
As the Muscogee (Creek) Nation inoculates its healthcare workers, the tribe has also used CARES Act funds to purchase cold storage, contracted with doctors to provide added care in rural areas, and provide mobile vaccinations.
"The CARES Acr has really allowed us to go in and purchase some really badly needed equipment for the pandemic," said Shawn Terry, Muscogee (Creek) Nation's secretary of health. "The first thing that we did was purchase two mobile clinic vehicles.”
Mobile clinics that will serve two patients at at time, including patients who can’t travel for care.
Terry said the vaccine has given the tribe’s frontline employees new hope at a time they really need it.
“I spoke to a girl yesterday who lost her mother and her father and an uncle all with this virus," Terry said. "If you speak to my employees here, every single person knows somebody that’s died.”
All of Oklahoma’s tribes have felt the pandemic's impact, with each moving America down the road to recovery in unique ways.
The Citizen Potawatomi tribe is helping with the vaccine roll out by making sure there’s enough cold storage.
“They are going to actually make dry ice to go along with that," said Linda Capps, Citizen Potawatomi's vice chairman. "That in itself is going to be really good for us. We plan to turn that into a business."
A literal shot in the arm for Native Americans determined to take care of their healthcare workers at a time they can’t afford to lose any more of their elders.
"We were losing speakers around eight, nine, ten a month normally and now this pandemic has increased that no doubt,” Daugherty said.
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