COVID-19 and the Oglala Sioux People

Experience of the coronavirus pandemic looks remarkably different depending on where you plant your feet. Springfield Dominican Sister Barbara Ann Bogenschutz and the parishioners at Our Lady of the Sioux, in Oglala, SD, where she is the pastoral leader, have their feet in a precarious place.

Oglala Lakota County, the boundaries of which are roughly contiguous with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is one of the poorest counties on one of the poorest Indian reservations in the US. The nearest medical facilities are in Rapid City, two counties over and 125 miles north.

In early April, the tribe set up checkpoints to screen passengers from coronavirus symptoms and to redirect nonessential traffic around the reservation, allowing only essential travel to pass through. In early May, the South Dakota governor threatened legal action against the tribe.

Our Lady of the Sioux parishioner Paul Little, who served 16 years on the tribal council, has experience with the challenges the tribe faces. “The governor has told the tribes that they have no right to block state highways through the reservation, but to play it safe the tribe has decided to do that,” he said. He wasn’t aware of whether or when the tribe would remove the checkpoints, but said he favored them as a measure to protect the residents.

Paul Little

The conflict with the governor de-escalated when state legislators representing tribal lands spoke out in support of their sovereignty. Social distancing was Sister Barbara Ann’s concern, especially at funerals. She said a funeral in nearby Manderson seemed to have been the source of the first two infections. “They do not keep social distancing practices,” she said. “It may have been two people from the meat packers in Sioux Falls who came to the funeral and brought the virus.”

Many factors mitigate against the tribe when it comes to public health. Communicating is a challenge, as is testing, contact tracing, and providing adequate health services on the reservation. Paul understands. A radio he relies on for news hasn’t worked since he moved to a new apartment. He must run the car radio to stay up to date. He also expressed concerns for tribal members living in the more remote rural areas on the reservation where they are without running water. “How can you keep your hands clean in that case?” he asked.

“We’ve been pretty lucky so far,” he added. As of mid-May, there were 14 confirmed cases in the county and no deaths.