Leaders concerned about COVID impact on Vt.'s indigenous communities
The number of reported cases of Covid-19 among Native Americans in Vermont remains low, but Abenaki tribal leaders are concerned their members remain at risk because of economic and health factors.
In addition, they say state data that relies on self-reporting could undercount Abenaki cases among individuals who are hesitant to self-identify as Native American.
Across the country, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Native American tribes, as well as people of color more generally. In Vermont, African American Vermonters have the highest rate of infection of any demographic, 10 times higher than that of white Vermonters, according to the Vermont Department of Health.
But unlike the national trend, reported cases of those who self-identify as Native American in Vermont remain low.
Tribal leaders, however, say the virus has still significantly impacted their community, citing elders and artists who are at particular risk. Now, tribes are organizing grassroots support for those in their communities who are most impacted by the pandemic, as well as conducting their own research on how the coronavirus is affecting their members.
When it comes to relief funding during the pandemic, recognition status matters. Specifically, federal recognition determines eligibility for relief. Four Abenaki tribes in Vermont are recognized by the state government: Elnu, Missisquoi, Koasek and Nulhegan. But other tribes’ petitions for state recognition have been denied, and no Vermont tribe has federal recognition.
Without federal recognition, Vermont tribes are not eligible for relief funding through the CARES Act, which provides a minimum aid payment to tribes of $100,000. Relief efforts within Vermont have been directed toward minority populations in general, but have not included aid specifically allocated to tribes.
Chief Roger Longtoe of the Elnu tribe said many members have difficulty accessing this type of aid because of low levels of computer or grant-writing literacy. “Big corporations know exactly what they have to do to get those funds from the government,” he said. “But families and smaller businesses may not be up to date.”
Longtoe and his wife own one of these small businesses and say they have taken a hit. “In my case and my wife’s case, because we have a Native store and all the festivals and powwows have closed down, it’s hurting us. It’s hurt a lot of Abenaki people who own businesses and make crafts.”
Artists in the Abenaki community have been particularly impacted by closures, as they largely depend on in-person events to generate revenue. According to its website, the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association has identified 280 artists in “immediate need” of support. The association has received a grant from the Vermont Humanities Council to support some virtual programming, such as Abenaki Heritage Weekend, which is typically held in person. Additionally, 17 artists have received direct relief through a grant from the Vermont Arts Council and New England Foundation for the Arts.
“The biggest impact is on our artists because all of the events where they would normally sell their things have been shut down,” said Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan tribe. The Rapid Response Artist Relief Program provides a maximum award of $500, which is not a “life changing” amount. Although, Stevens added, “everything helps.”
To put this amount in context, Chief Shirly Hook of the Koasek band, who is also an artist, cited “a couple of thousand dollars’ worth” of expenditures on art supplies, for which she has not been able to make a return on her investment. “I haven’t sold a quarter of what I normally sell,” said Hook. Sales are “way, way down,” and now, she’s contending with unexpected medical bills as well.
But Hook is mostly worried about the elders. “I think they are taking it really hard. Many are reluctant to leave their home because they’re worried about getting the virus. The ones that are living by themselves get really lonely.”
TRIBAL MEMBERS AMONG MOST VULNERABLE
Tribal leaders like Hook and Stevens also expressed concern over tribal members who are vulnerable because of pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. According to the Department of Health, 19% of Vermonters identifying as Native American have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, which is more than twice the statewide rate of 8%. While only 9% of the general population of Vermont has been diagnosed with diabetes, the percentage of Native Americans is much higher, at 20%.
Income is another relevant factor. Households that earn less than $50,000 “are statistically more likely to have diabetes.” The same is true for cardiovascular disease. The prevalence of both diseases also increases with age.
Efforts to support community members have mostly been grassroots. “We try to call and email to make sure they get the food they need,” said Hook.
This is one area in which tribal members have become increasingly self-reliant since the pandemic. “Most of us went to growing our own food this year,” said Nathan Pero, who has served on the state commission of Native American affairs and is the chief of one of the bands of the Koasek Abenaki who are still fighting for recognition. “I know there’s been a lot of canning done by the members,” Pero added, saying this has helped them to stay out of grocery stores.
“We’ll have some good squash to put out this year,” said Pero. “And to give out to anybody in the tribe who needs it.”
While tribes are working to find solutions, the changes are taking a toll. “Most gatherings, meetings, festivals, they’ve all been canceled. Some of them have gone online, but it’s not the same,” said Rich Holschuch, a spokesperson for the Elnu Tribe. For communities that are “family and kinship based,” Holschuch said that Covid-related restrictions have “put a big damper on people’s ability to function as a community.”
RELUCTANCE TO SELF-IDENTIFY
Statewide data does show, however, that those efforts have been effective in holding down the number of coronavirus infections. The Department of Health reports only two cases of Covid-19 among those who self-identify as Native American or Alaskan Native in the state.
But there are concerns that these counts could be low as some people may be reluctant to self-identify.
“There’s still a lot of people not identifying,” said Stevens, citing fear of discrimination as one main reason. According to the Nulhegan leader, people are hesitant to identify themselves as Native American even if it could lead to an opportunity such as eligibility to apply for a scholarship, like one that he recently helped organize through Champlain College. “Nobody took advantage of it because they didn’t want to identify as being Abenaki.”
Stevens sees this type of discrimination as a broader issue in the state, citing the case of Tabitha Moore, who has been outspoken about racism in Vermont. “The more she’s doing, the more she’s being attacked,” he said. Moore recently announced that she is suspending her bid for high bailiff in Rutland County and that she plans to sell her house in Wallingford following racially motivated harassment targeting her and her family.
Pero agreed that some are hesitant to self-identify, which could affect the state’s data collection. “There are a lot of people around that I know are Native but they won’t say it,” he said, explaining that fear of discrimination dates back to the eugenics program that began in the 1920s. The University of Vermont issued an apology for its involvement in the program last year, but a bill proposing an official apology from the state has languished, at a time when legislation around the pandemic has been prioritized.
In a statement, Sara Chesbrough, equity technical adviser for the Vermont Department of Health, agreed that under-reporting of cases among Abenaki is probable, given the issues mentioned by tribal leadership. Additionally, Chesbrough cited possible “under-utilization of the health system.”
“Indigenous people in Vermont may have some understandable mistrust of government systems. They have been subjected to centuries of state-sanctioned violence. Identifying as indigenous is not always safe,” Chesbrough said. “We know that marginalized racial identities generally have higher rates of chronic disease, co-morbidities and poorer health outcomes because of unequal access to health care, health systems, food, housing and generational wealth. The health department is looking to communities to hear what can be done to improve health outcomes.”
Another limitation of the state data is that tribal members may be geographically dispersed, with tribal members not necessarily living within state borders. Stevens cites tribal citizens who are living across the United States. Other bands have members in both Vermont and New Hampshire.
The Vermont Abenaki Artists Association is conducting its own research about Covid-19 in the Abenaki community and expects to present its findings this fall. In the meantime, program coordinator Lina Longtoe declined to comment on these efforts, citing the “sensitive and confidential” nature of this information.
In many ways, Vermont appears to be handling the pandemic well, but as many communities know, even in this state the economic and cultural panorama is difficult in ways not always apparent from the data.
In the face of these ongoing challenges, Hook emphasized the importance of helping others. “If we can continue helping each other out,” she said, “I think we’ll be fine.”