The COVID-19 Pandemic in Lakota Country and a Mighty Community Response

March 17, 2022 | 2:16 pm
Natalie Stites Means
Natalie Stites Means JD, Cheyenne River Lakota/Dakota

While the country heaves a big sigh of relief during the latest ebb of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact remains: the pandemic is not over. We as the Indigenous peoples of the United States have endured a continuous requiem in our communities, with so many of our beloved elders, culture bearers, and people with disabilities or compromised immune systems succumbing to the virus.  

Because Native Americans disproportionately have the highest percentage of disabled people and the highest rates of autoimmune diseases compared to other groups in the United States, we, of Wotakuye Mutual Aid in the City of Rapid City, South Dakota, knew Native Americans were likely going to be hit harder by the pandemic compared to other groups, and unfortunately, we have lost too many relatives because the pandemic exacerbated inequities that were present before the pandemic hit our communities.  

In the City of Rapid City, South Dakota, the past two years of organizing a community response project, i.e Wotakuye Mutual Aid, for families in quarantine and isolation due to COVID-19 infection has irrevocably changed my worldview.

I have born witness to the consequences of irresponsible response and discourse, sowing confusion that has eroded trust and compromised our lives and health. Despite continued surges and variants of concern in this pandemic, national and local pandemic response has adjusted to allow a certain amount of death and disease without any urgency to remedy the social injustice that paved the way for the disproportionate impacts on Native American communities.  

The civic failure of the local and state institutions, including hospitals, nonprofits organizations, government, and local businesses, became apparent immediately. Rising infection rates impacted our community directly and we, Wotakuye Mutual Aid, began a daily response to families with COVID-19 on May 6, 2020 that continued through March 10, 2021. The urban Indian community of Rapid City responded to the pandemic through an unprecedented effort that was rooted in traditional Lakota beliefs and practices, mutual aid, science, and community organizing.  

Frankly, we as community organizers knew that these organizations and institutions do not care for Native Americans in this city or state, and that we were going to be hit by this pandemic in ways our non-Indigenous neighbors would not be despite having access to (inadequate) health care through federally funded efforts.

As organizers, we knew families would be in need of basic necessities, housing, food, care, medicines, deliveries, and accessible relief, because these needs are glaring even before the pandemic. Since then, we have cooked close to 10,000 meals for families in 450 homes and hotel rooms provided to the unhoused struck with COVID-19 infection. We have distributed over 25,000 masks to our community and we have promoted vaccination to every one of the individuals we have served. 

The ongoing civic failure in South Dakota during the pandemic is yet another utter disregard for life we, as the Indigenous people of this state territory—the Oceti Sakowin, also known as the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota or the Great Sioux Nation as referred to in the 1868 treaty—endure. The pandemic response reinforced a reckless ongoing disregard for our lives that state and local governments are notorious for here in South Dakota (often referred to along with North Dakota, as the Deep North).  White supremacy, legal wrangling, and failed treaty obligations define relations between non-Natives and Natives here and this forecasted the weak civic response.

Vaccination rates remain low in South Dakota compared to other parts of the US, with 72% of people in South Dakota above 5 years old receiving at least one dose. Further, we live in a mainstream culture promoted by leadership in every area of public life, one that condones individualism in public health which results in people being allowed to refuse to take personal steps like testing, isolating, quarantining, masking. and maintaining distance to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19 in the entire community.  In marked contrast, several tribal nations have had an aggressive protective stance toward COVID-19 based on our own values as Indigenous people in this pandemic.  

Even while using city twice in its name, i.e. the City of Rapid City, this incorporated entity cannot exist without special Congressional action to ensure its metropolitan services area designation in the United States. This designation is in part justified by the steady daily traffic of Native Americans from and back to the reservations of South Dakota’s nine tribes and specifically Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River reservations.

Rapid City is the second largest city in South Dakota and the primary center for goods and services by many rural people, including tribal peoples who live on the reservations and work in the tribal or federal governments. It was the leadership of Tribes that provided a stark contrast to the failure to respond by the non-Native state and local entities. Instead of cooperating for the sake of a public health emergency, the governor of South Dakota began disputing the legality of the Tribe’s stance so much so that the Tribe filed a lawsuit.  

How did Tribal leadership respond to the pandemic?  

The Indigenous response to the pandemic was exemplified by aggressive protection of our Tribes starting on April 1, 2020, with border checkpoints on the state and reservation borders. The goal was to first and foremost protect the lives of our elders and vulnerable community members without income, with disability or illness, and single parent households. The tribal leadership came not only from within South Dakota but particularly from the Navajo Nation, which was among the first and hardest hit tribal nations in the United States in this pandemic, and was among our first donations of technical advice and masks.

The Tribes in South Dakota took notable action around their borders and in strong contrast to the hands- off let-it-rip response of local and state governments and businesses. In fact, the governor of South Dakota began a legal and political fight to prevent the Tribes from their use of reservation border checkpoints instead of cooperating for the sake of the lives of South Dakotans, which includes urban Indians, rural, and reservation residents. 

When we formed our community response in Rapid City, unlike most other approaches in the state, we used a household approach to serve our community because the individual case approach was not relevant to the actual lives of our families or to our culture. This approach worked. By March 2021, when mass vaccination was just getting underway, numbers of Tribal households quarantining ebbed for the first time. Since this grassroots effort started in May 2020, we’ve served almost 2,000 individuals in 450 homes. We also promoted vaccination in our community, notably unlike the larger Rapid City community who eschewed any type of local vaccination campaign to increase access or information. We urged people to vaccinate and to boost as soon as possible in every instance of aid, and we continue to respond to families requesting aid from March through today. 

The crisis is not over for Tribal communities  

Amid this pandemic, we as community organizers have not been able to focus on so many other issues such as the Native Vote, the ongoing removal of infants and children from Native American families, protecting the water, police brutality, building mutual aid networks, or addressing hunger and housing in the City of Rapid City.   

Looking to a future of continued mourning, long COVID, and failure by the white supremacy approach to this pandemic by the leadership of South Dakota, we will continue to build our mutual aid networks on the reservation and in the urban Indian neighborhoods of Rapid City, for these networks are our kinship and tribal ties that endure despite best efforts of our stateside neighbors.  This pandemic is far from over. We will continue to care for those whom society, government, and business apparently simply do not care about in Rapid City, South Dakota. 

Natalie Stites Means JD (Cheyenne River Lakota/Dakota) is an organizer & social entrepreneur. In 2019, after being the first Native American woman to run for Rapid City mayor, she founded the HeSapa Voter Initiative (HSVI), a civic engagement effort for urban Indians in South Dakota. When the pandemic hit, she and other women co-founded the grassroots community response now known as the Wotakuye Mutual Aid society under the auspices of the HSVI to respond to urban Indians in Rapid City. In August 2019, she was appointed to the South Dakota Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights for a four-year term.

Ms. Stites Means is a 1999 UCLA graduate in History & American Indian Studies and received her Juris Doctor from the UCLA School of Law in 2007. In October 2019, she was recognized by her alma mater for her work for Indigenous peoples and social justice as part of the UCLA Centennial Initiative and is one of the 25 Women of UCLA recognized by Berkeley’s Celebration of 150 Years of Women in 2020. She is married with one child in the beautiful, sacred Black Hills.