‘Smallpox 2020:’ Blackfeet Nation fears impact of COVID-19 in Montana

When the first cases of coronavirus appeared in Montana, Jolene Barrientes quit her job.

A member of the Blackfeet Nation, Jolene had been working at Big Sky Foods since she moved to Cut Bank in January, but she couldn’t risk exposure to the virus.

Her husband, Joseph, was shot when he was 15 years old. Now, at 37, he has one functioning lung and no spleen. Jolene said he nearly died two years ago when he contracted the flu, so she fears coronavirus could kill him.

To keep Joseph safe, Jolene carries disinfectant everywhere she goes. She said she has “outside” clothes designated for runs to the grocery store, which she immediately washes upon her return. She disinfects the bottom of her shoes before entering the house, and she is growing aloe plants for homemade sanitizer.

“I can’t take a risk. It’s too scary for me,” she said. “(Joseph) is all I have. He’s my rock.”

Like many members of the Blackfeet Nation, Jolene and Joseph fear the coronavirus’ impact on Native American communities everywhere.   

Native Americans suffer from disproportionately high rates of diabetes, heart disease, respiratory illnesses and other conditions, putting them at a greater risk of contracting a severe form of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

Older adults (65 years and older) also have a higher risk of catching a dangerous strain of the disease, which is especially worrisome for tribes, as elders hold sacred cultural knowledge.

Many Native Americans live with extended family, making it possible for one person to spread coronavirus across generations of family members.

While the Indian Health Service (IHS) provides health care to members of federally recognized tribes, the federal agency is chronically underfunded, tribal officials say. Not all tribal members have access to an IHS facility, and if they do, there is no guarantee the facility will have enough ICU beds, ventilators and staff to handle an influx of patients. (Representatives from IHS could not be reached for comment.) Some tribal members requiring intensive care may need to travel hours to the next nearest hospital.

Native Americans survived government-imposed assimilation policies, broken treaties, smallpox and massacres. As COVID-19 spreads worldwide, people revert to the adage that it “does not discriminate.” However, as they live with the consequences of history today, many Native Americans fear the virus could ravage their vulnerable communities.

Dr. Greg Holzman, state medical officer with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said Tuesday that 95% of the cases (there were 319 confirmed cases on Tuesday) have been white and 3.5% American Indian.

“There have been no cases associated directly with the tribal reservations at this point in time,” he said on Tuesday. “We are monitoring all that closely.”

While there were no confirmed cases on the Blackfeet Reservation as of Thursday afternoon, Glacier County had three cases, and neighboring Toole County had 18 confirmed cases and three deaths from the virus, as of Thursday.

As the virus edges closer to Browning, Blackfeet tribal members dread its inevitable infiltration.

‘We acted fast and treated it as a disaster’

While he acknowledged that the Blackfeet Nation “has been very lucky in the last few weeks,” James McNeely, the tribe’s public information officer, said it’s likely not a matter of if the virus gets to the reservation, but when.

The Blackfeet Nation closed schools and curtailed businesses, as all Montana communities did to prevent the spread of the virus.

McNeely said the tribe has taken additional precautions, including establishing a 10 p.m. curfew, educating the community on the virus and creating a Facebook page for tribal members to follow updates and access other resources, including mental health support.

The tribe also recently passed an ordinance, authorizing coronavirus-related expenses to the tribal government and ensuring the council cooperates with appropriate federal and state entities.

The ordinance also imposes fines and other punishments for violations of curfew (violators could face a $100 fine and/or up to one day of incarceration) and the stay-at-home order (violators could face up to 6 months incarceration and/or a $5,000 fine).

The ordinance also closed vacation rental sites on the Blackfeet reservation to non-residents or people returning from infected areas.

“The safety of the Blackfeet Nation is our first priority. When we got wind of (coronavirus), we acted fast and treated it as a disaster,” McNeely said. “We have a higher rate of folks with weakened immune systems, and we always think of our children and our elders, who we hold near and dear.”

Warnings from the Navajo Nation and Washington state

Though the Blackfeet Reservation has been fortunate not to have any confirmed cases, the Navajo Nation, which spans more than 17 million acres across portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, reported 384 confirmed positive cases and 15 deaths as of April 6.

John Bird, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he works as a technical assistance coordinator, often providing support for tribes. Bird, who grew up on a ranch west of Cut Bank, worries the virus will hurt the Blackfeet Nation as it has the Navajo.

“I have a big fear because I know how our families live (on the Blackfeet Reservation). I have three generations of people in my house, and that’s very common on the reservation. It’s not uncommon to have 10 or more people in one home with three or four generations.”

Bird said his brother and sister-in-law are both over 70 years old, and his sister, whom he lives with, has disabilities, which Bird said weakens her health in different ways.

“They are all high risk. It’s really dangerous,” Bird said. “I think the Blackfeet need a wake-up call. I have a greater fear that some young people are not adhering to the shelter-in-place guidelines, social distancing guidelines and are acting like nothing is happening. I’m dreading seeing (the virus) get on the Blackfeet Reservation because I know what it can do and how quickly it can spread. I know the potential impact is devastating.”

Like Bird, Bryan Kolppa, 59, has also seen the destruction of the virus.

Kolppa, whose father was adopted off the Blackfeet reservation, grew up in Missoula. He lived in Helena for seven years before moving to Washington, where his wife works with local tribes and his daughter works in a Seattle hospital.

Though the rate of new confirmed cases in Washington is beginning to slow down, the state was once the nation’s epicenter for the virus.  

“It’s been hard on the tribes here to provide services because so many things are closed,” he said. “I worry about the people in Montana because I think it will be worse than what people expect. I fear culture will be lost. It will be devastating.”

‘Our reservation is very, very fragile’

With their reservation adjacent to Glacier National Park, Blackfeet tribal members worry about the impact of tourism during the pandemic.

Though Glacier closed on March 27 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Craig Falcon, who works as a cultural education consultant and lives just north of Browning, said he is concerned about hotels and stores affiliated with the park opening for the summer.

“They hire college students and people from all over the world. We are reading news of irresponsible students on spring break, and it’s scary because we are a small population, and we could be really hurt by this. It’s like smallpox 2020. It could wipe us out,” he said, referencing the epidemic, which killed an estimated 90% of Native Americans and plagued the Blackfeet Nation for years.

“Our reservation is very, very fragile,” Falcon said. “And Native people are close knit, so we take care of each other. With employees and tourists coming (here), that virus will touch one of us and spread like a grass fire in our community.”

Danny McIntosh, marketing manager at Glacier Park Collection, said that Glacier hotels and tourism attractions will not open until federal and state officials deem it safe to do so.  

“Make no mistake, we cannot and will not open if there’s any danger to anyone,” McIntosh said.

Even with the park and associated businesses closed, some members of the Blackfeet Nation fear an influx of recreators, or people who drive through the reservation to camp or hike on nearby land. Falcon said people have reported seeing more travel trailers and cars with out-of-state license plates driving through Browning toward the mountains.

“People are coming here from cities, trying to escape. They may think we are very rural and protected here, but then they will stop at gas stations and stores, so that’s concerning. Once (coronavirus) gets on the ‘rez,’ everybody’s got it,” he said.

Many tribal members share Falcon’s concerns, and some are calling for the tribe to implement road closures or check points, which would allow authorities to monitor who enters the reservation. Some tribes, including the Chippewa Cree and Crow tribes, have implemented these check points. But the Blackfeet reservation is unique in that two major roads – Highway 89 and Highway 2 – run through it.

McNeely, the tribe’s public information officer, said that roadside checkpoints “are being discussed,” but that state and federal entities would have to be involved in a decision to close roads.

Larry Reevis, who runs the golf course in Browning, said that road closures might not be a plausible solution. Rather than stopping them, he suggests tribal law enforcement escort outsiders through the reservation.

“We have to observe their rights, too,” he said, adding that he hopes the tribe will mobilize health care workers to combat the virus.

Reevis, 60, also compared the pandemic to the smallpox epidemic.

“We are faced with extinction. We were killed by smallpox, and we were killed by the Spanish flu,” he said. “We need to be proactive about this. If we are, we can save some people.”

‘It’s taken a toll on me’

As a small business owner, Sarah Jean Heavy Runner said COVID-19 has already affected her.

She owns Badger Cliff Industry in Heart Butte, where she makes and sells teepee liners, canvas bags and Native jewelry. But because of the virus, her business is closed. With no customers and no income, Heavy Runner, 47, said she can’t afford to make payments on her Jeep Cherokee.

“I didn’t want to admit it, but this has taken a toll on me. After all of this, I won’t have a car,” she said.

John Pepion, an artist and Blackfeet tribal member, said he has been thinking about Montanans who have lost or will lose family members during the pandemic. Pepion’s cousin died last week, and he thinks his cousin’s funeral may have been the last in the state before the governor’s shelter-in-place order went into effect.

“I had to make a choice not to shake hands. It was hard not to hug people especially when they are grieving. My cousin is in a better place, but it was so different because of the impact of the virus. It was crazy. I never imagined this in my lifetime,” he said.

Pepion said he made more than 60 art pieces for the Out West Art Show, which occurs during Western Art Week in Great Falls.

“When the show postponed, I didn’t know what to do,” he said.

A substitute art teacher at Heart Butte High School, Pepion said he realized that isolation may be stressful and depressing for educators and students. To help his community relieve anxiety, he created two free coloring pages for adults, educators and students.

“It’s like therapy,” he said.

Millie Bearleggings, a student at University of Montana, has always wanted to be a doctor.

Motivated to help her community amid the pandemic, Bearleggings has been making masks with other volunteers. She hopes to be able to give masks to the Blackfeet community, especially those who are considered more vulnerable to coronavirus.

“I care so much for my elders and my family members, and my community’s quality of life is important to me,” she said. “I want them to have the best possible outcome if they ever contract this. That way we won’t have to bury so many of our people when this is over.”

Montana lawmakers advocate for tribes

Montana lawmakers know Native communities face additional challenges when combating the pandemic and have advocated for more funds and resources.

Gov. Steve Bullock, Sen. Jon Tester, Rep. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines have all pushed for increased IHS funding. The lawmakers have also worked to ensure that the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana, which recently gained federal recognition, is eligible for IHS care.

Daines urged federal officials to provide tribal communities with flexible funding secured in the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Gianforte also introduced a bill which would give tribes access to the national stockpile of drugs and medical supplies.  

Though the CARES Act allocated $8 billion in emergency funds to help tribal governments, Tester took issue with the delayed rollout of the funds, saying “there is no room for error in getting that money out the door.”

‘Please stay home’

To take her mind off her worries and to get out of the house, Jolene Barrientes said she and Joseph “get in the car and go towards the mountains.”

But as people from populated areas try to escape the virus by fleeing to the countryside, Jolene said her place of refuge is becoming dangerous.  

“I want to tell them, ‘Please, please stay at your home. Please don’t contaminate ours,’” she said.