Note: This article is part of the project: "Indigenous Impacts: How Native American communities are responding to COVID-19." We invite you to view the entire project here.


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It might be just a Netflix subscription, but to those tribe members given one to help them stay quarantined, it could be a ticket to keeping their community safe from COVID-19.

Across the Upper Midwest, Indigenous tribes are forging unique ways to keep their members safe as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. Many have created quarantine facilities, pro-masking efforts and food and cash distribution programs. Others are attempting other stay-home innovations, such as paying for online video streaming and cell phones.

Underpinning many of these programs and financial support: a crucial $8 billion set aside for tribes in the federal pandemic relief CARES Act approved by Congress this spring.

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The approaches taken have been as diverse as the tribes themselves.

At the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s reservation within southeast South Dakota, the tribal council’s COVID-19 task force brainstormed ways to help those who needed to quarantine to stay home. One lightning bolt of an idea: a Netflix subscription.

“You try to keep a 16-year-old kid at home for two weeks, how is that going to work?” said Derrick Marks, tribal council member and head of the task force. “Mind you, these are $15 dollar purchases, they’re nothing in the long run, but they’re things to help people stay home.”

'It really adds up in the long run'

Tribes have brought to life a host of pandemic relief ideas to tighten the support net for its members, aiming to aid keep home those who may have COVID-19 or been exposed to the virus, and help those who are most at risk.

The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, whose reservation land lies within North Dakota and South Dakota and bordering Minnesota, implemented a pro-masking program called “Mask Up Sisseton Community” with a positive-tone, light-hearted Facebook hub page to share mask information and advice.

“One good thing about having to wear a mask … you won’t accidentally eat any bugs flying around your head,” reads one recent post with laughing and masked-face emojis. Other posts provide info on where to buy handmade masks with a wide variety of designs, or get free masks.

In Minnesota, like elsewhere, many tribes have set up an application process for tribal members to get financial support due to COVID-19 expenses, said Shannon Geshick, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and a citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.

“It’s my understanding that a lot of tribal citizens are able to receive that funding,” she said. “That’s how they’re tracking where the funding is going, too, in case the federal government does an audit or asks what happened to that money.”

Some of the outside-the-box ideas the Yankton Sioux Tribe has implemented include no-contact meal deliveries, offering a cell phone to elders who just have landlines, providing cleaning supplies, care packages to keep children busy. The goal: to keep COVID-19’s spread low, and keep it away from those most vulnerable to the respiratory disease.

“People don’t realize,” Marks said, of the scope of pandemic relief provided by the tribe. “Sometimes our people don’t realize how much we’re doing in all of this. But it really adds up in the long run.”

Array of quarantine solutions

Like many other tribes in the region, the Yankton Sioux Tribe has worked to build out some sort of quarantine option for those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have had contact with those who have tested positive.

Those isolation offerings have included providing backyard tents for those in sometimes crowded living situations, to refitting a wing of the tribe’s casino, temporarily shuttered due to the pandemic.

Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, said he knows of several tribes across the state who are taking a similar approach, to answer a tough question: What happens if uncle gets sick?

“Keep in mind, housing in the country, there’s three or four families living in one household, that’s very common,” Davis said. “So if you get the uncle who gets (COVID-19) -- boy, that’s what we’re talking about.”

The Spirit Lake Tribe has worked to arrange quarantine housing at a local hotel, and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is working to place recreational vehicles on powwow grounds to serve as a quarantine center for tribe members, said Davis, who is a member of the tribe as well as a descendent of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

“Whether it’s a school gymnasium, or there in the casino or a local hotel, the tribes have worked very hard in being innovative and making sure the right people are quarantined away from those houses,” Davis said.