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Montana’s Tribal Nations Preserve COVID Restrictions To Preserve Their Cultures

In Montana’s northwest corner, the Blackfeet Nation announced plans to test everyone living on the reservation and opened drive-thru facilities with free swab tests. (Moment Open/Getty Images)

As Montana plows forward with its reopening, including throwing open the doors to tourism on June 1, the outlook is starkly different for members of the state’s Native American nations, which have approached the coronavirus with greater caution and stricter controls.

For members of the state’s far-flung tribes, who make up nearly 7% of Montana’s population of roughly 1 million, protective attitudes toward elders and cultural heritage have shaped a pandemic response around defending the most vulnerable rather than prioritizing economics. Tribal leaders across the state say reservation shutdowns and stay-at-home orders will continue for now, as widespread, proactive testing for the virus on reservations gets underway.

“For the most part, in general, wider society has put more value on the young, not so much on elderly and the information and experience and knowledge,” said Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Democratic state legislator and member of the Crow Nation. “Whereas with tribes, the acknowledgment and respect of elders as the carriers of the cultures has always been there.”

The stakes are high for the Crow and other tribes. Even with strict protective measures, ramped-up testing has already revealed a number of positive cases among the Crow, and members are braced for more.

For these Native American nations, losing an elder to the coronavirus, or any untimely death, is no small matter. Elders are often the bearers of vanishing languages, history and important cultural knowledge. The Indigenous populations here are small — fewer than 80,000 people in this state combined — so any losses would be significant.

“When an elder dies, there’s a whole history, a whole line of information that we lose,” Stewart-Peregoy said. “It’s like the library burning down.”

Several tribal leaders have pointed southwest to the deadly outbreak in the Navajo Nation as evidence of the need for strict measures to ward off outbreaks. There, in the reservation that covers a swath of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, more than 5,300 people had tested positive for the virus and at least 246 had died through Sunday. So far, none of Montana’s tribes has had an outsize virus outbreak, but small clusters have left many wary.

“We’re very concerned that we’re going to lose the last of those with the history of the people, the ceremonies and the traditions,” said Rae Peppers, a Crow member who lives on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in eastern Montana. “That’s what we’re really protecting.”

Montana is home to seven reservations and the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, a landless nation granted federal recognition a few months ago. Across the state, where new positive cases have been relatively rare in recent weeks and testing has been made more widely available, nation leaders plan to continue their stronger stance as the rest of Montana shifts into something closer to normal life. Montana adopted stay-at-home orders early on and cases have remained relatively low — 539 confirmed cases and 17 deaths through Wednesday, one of the lowest rates in the country.

But already a handful of new positive cases have emerged in recent days on the Crow reservation with the wide availability of testing. Big Horn County, which includes the Crow and part of the Northern Cheyenne reservations, has ticked up to more than 30 positive cases.

When an elder dies, there’s a whole history, a whole line of information that we lose. It’s like the library burning down.

Sharon Stewart-Peregoy

In the state’s northwest corner, the Blackfeet Nation announced plans to test everyone living on the reservation and opened drive-thru facilities with free swab tests. In a letter to members earlier in May, Robert DesRosier, the tribe’s emergency response manager, urged people to continue to abide by lockdown orders, saying, “Blackfeet are being inconvenienced, not oppressed!”

Some people fear that the state’s reopening to tourism without mandatory quarantine or testing for visitors will set up more conflicts with Indigenous nations that have chosen to keep their borders closed. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead reservation, located in the heart of one of the state’s most popular vacation regions, has suspended all nonresident recreation on reservation land and urged residents to report infractions to tribal authorities.

Already, tribes have dealt with people taking flight from pandemic hot spots, attempting to shelter on reservations that have no active cases. On the Northern Cheyenne reservation, Peppers said tribal leaders have kicked out a handful of nonresidents camping, believing it to be a haven from pandemic hot spots.

A major concern for the Northern Cheyenne is a highway that brings heavy truck and tourist traffic from the Dakotas into Montana. The tribe has set up checkpoints to make sure those visitors do not try to shelter on the reservation, putting tribal members at potential risk.

“Everybody comes through here, and all we’re asking is they keep moving through,” Peppers said.

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has urged respect for the tribes’ decisions to follow their specific protocols — and even supported the Blackfeet’s decision to close access to the eastern entrances of Glacier National Park, which draws millions of visitors each year. That’s a far different response than in neighboring South Dakota. There, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem demanded that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe remove checkpoints from state and federal highways through their reservations. Her hard-line response to the tribes’ protective measures has raised concerns over the governor’s respect for tribal sovereignty.

In Montana, meanwhile, some tribal officials said they are mostly satisfied with Bullock’s caution to let tribes set their own rules amid the pandemic. But Native nations fear the potential incoming surge of tourists when restrictions are lifted will set up conflict and new dangers.

“It’s unfortunate because what the Crow Tribe is trying to do is protect its own for public health and safety, and you wind up with people coming in just for recreation,” said Stewart-Peregoy.

For the Little Shell, the country’s newest recognized tribe, the situation is different still. Because the tribe has no reservation and no Indian Health Service Clinic, protecting elders is more challenging. Little Shell tribal chairman Gerald Gray said members are taking the virus threat seriously, but the situation is confusing.

“It’s one of those things, for us it’s really hard to tell where things are at, because we don’t have a clinic or a service unit to help our members,” said Gray.

The tribe has secured testing supplies for members, however, and offered free tests from the state at a drive-thru facility in Great Falls.

Across Indian Country in Montana, there have been no protests in favor of reopening or organized calls for getting back to business as usual. Instead, Peppers said, the scattered protests from some non-Indigenous people against stay-at-home closures have been puzzling.

“It’s such a lack of respect for the situation, it’s silly that they’re protesting it,” she said. “Maybe it’s because they’ve never experienced trauma.”

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