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What the US Could Learn From the Eastern Band Cherokee Indians’ Pandemic Response


 What Community Care Really Looks Like  

VIA UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY:  Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle - September 10, 2020

Amid a pandemic, I became the only published novelist member of my tribe (tribe meaning American Indian, not hipster yoga besties). Months of socially approved quarantine sounded like a dream come true. I could sit at home and make my very best attempt not to be a one-hit-wonder. I could make my tribe proud and leave a legacy in letters by putting to use the hours of solitude. Except I forgot the one truism of being a tribal member—it ain't about you.

The entrance to the Qualla Boundary, governmental seat of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), is marked with a large wooden sign that reads, "Welcome to the Cherokee Indian Reservation." On June 1st, 2020, a long line of vehicles, many of which had the official seal of the EBCI on their license plates, snaked its way around the Mountain Federal Credit Union parking lot and drive thru, spilling out into Highway 441's summer tourist traffic. The Credit Union is located less than a hundred feet from the official border of the Qualla Boundary—just across from the welcome sign.

Twice a year, December 1st and June 1st, enrolled members of the EBCI receive a per capita gaming revenue disbursement. If you want to make a quick trip to the bank or the post office, just forget trying on these two days. Deliveries of Amazon packages spike and businesses in the surrounding counties have come to rely on biannual surges to their sales. So as I drove onto the Boundary, dodging out-of-state travelers itching to toss a few coins at Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort or disappear into the woods of the Smoky Mountains, I was not surprised that I also had to wait in line behind blocked highway lanes as a steady flow of account holders deposited, cashed, or withdrew from the most recent per capita disbursement.

As I continued across the Boundary, I was, however, taken aback when forced to turn into a "do not enter" drive in order to circumvent the most recent wave of Covid-19 test takers who had arrived at the EBCI's impromptu test site: the outdoor theater where "Unto These Hills," the drama of the Cherokee story, is performed. These dozens of locals were eager to be part of the solution.

The EBCI has offered Covid-19 testing to its enrolled members and residents of the Qualla Boundary since March 15th. Initially, the lines were long; but as new case numbers plateaued, the number of test-seekers dwindled. The aftermath of Memorial Day weekend would be a wake-up call. As I drove home later, it occurred to me that the line to have a 6-inch cotton swab stuck deep up your nose was actually longer than the line to access thousands of dollars. Something about this day seemed to encapsulate everything that was making Cherokee a leader in the fight against Covid-19 proliferation.

Cherokee, North Carolina borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; the Qualla Boundary comprises 56,000 acres in western North Carolina, across four counties. This is also the site of a contagion prevalence anomaly. As surrounding counties continued to grow their Covid case numbers early on with far fewer tests administered, Cherokee's numbers looked unbelievable. Like most tribal communities, cases of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension far exceed national averages. So even before the United State's reported its first case of Covid-19 on January 20th, EBCI health officials were already discussing with Principal Chief Richard Sneed the potential impact on the Qualla Boundary.

They compared response models from Europe and South Korea, finding that South Korea exhibited far more effective measures. They knew education, mass testing, contact tracing, isolation of cases and quarantine would play the most critical roles in safeguarding the tribe. This wasn't insider knowledge. Most local and state governments knew this; the problem came in how to provide it.

Because the EBCI is a sovereign nation, with more economic resources than most, we bypassed the need for state action and long waits for federal aid. Chief Sneed insists, "The reason we have been more successful [in combating Covid-19] is because of our decision to partner with Dogwood Health Trust. Dogwood saw this as an opportunity to use us as a model."


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