CROW AGENCY — Some Montanans remain somewhat hesitant about the COVID vaccine, with an estimated 50 percent of the state’s eligible population unvaccinated against the virus. However, a push to get people vaccinated on Montana’s tribal lands is working.
In Montana’s more rural communities and counties, including reservations, COVID vaccine rates are higher than the state average.
That’s true for Big Horn County and the Crow Indian Reservation. Health officials there attribute that to tradition and a will to want to live a good life.
“A lot of people value good health,” said Crow tribal member Jack Old Horn. “A lot of people want to live.”
Old Horn is working on behalf of the Response Unified Coalition, along with the Big Horn County Health Department, Indian Health Services and other facilities and agencies committed to curbing COVID for good.
But even before a hefty vaccine rollout on America’s Indian Reservations, COVID was taking its toll.
“The reservations really have been affected at a higher rate than other populations in the state,” said Billie Jo Brown, director of nursing for Crow Indian Health.
At last check, the county had 84 people who have died from the virus. During the height of the pandemic, Big Horn County had the second-highest number of COVID cases in the state.
“We've all been together, you know, mitigating and fighting COVID,” said Big Horn County Public Health Director Bill Hodges.
Cases remain extremely high. As of November 23, the seven-day average for the county was 22 active cases, a high rate for a county of roughly 13,000 residents.
Indian Health Services says the country’s indigenous population was more likely to die from COVID than white Americans.
Hodges remembers a time when the virus was at its highest and members of the tribe called it an invisible enemy.
“It's somewhat emotional for me,” he said. “But the first death of a Crow tribal member was at Lodge Grass and it was kind of interesting. The pastor said there is this invisible enemy amongst us. We have to fight this in this invisible enemy.”
The Response Unified Coalition became just what the county and tribe needed -- an incorporated voice ready to save lives.
From mass testing sites in 2020 to mass Covid vaccine clinics in 2021, the coalition set out with a goal in mind: get shots in arms and save lives.
“And that's made a big difference,” said Hodges. “I think it’s, it's still challenging. We can't rest on our laurels.”
Now, the vaccine rates on the Crow Reservation are sitting at 55 percent, higher than the statewide average. And the actual number of vaccinated tribal members is likely even higher.
“That (55 percent) constitutes for those individuals who have received the vaccine at our facility,” said Brown. “We do know that the number is higher because many of the members of the community have received their vaccines in other locations.”
She explains that because the tribal land intercepts with county boundaries, reported numbers are hard to pin down.
“Some estimates have it close to 80 percent,” she said.
Nationally, vaccine rates on Native American reservations are high. The CDC now tracks and displays vaccination progress by race and ethnicity. According to research done by the New York Times, the vaccine rate for Big Horn County is at 77 percent.
There are a few reasons why some believe these numbers are higher. First, the Crow Tribe implemented an incentive of $300 to everyone who is fully vaccinated. Second, because tribal members have a strong will to keep others healthy and safe.
As Old Horn explains, its tradition and respect run deep on the reservation.
“One of the things that have been instilled in our traditions in our culture is we've been told to respect the elders,” said Old Horn. “Here on the reservation, we have multi-generations living in the household. And so, if the members of that household are respecting their elders, they want to get vaccinated to protect their elders.”