LAS VEGAS (AP) — Since the coronavirus prompted widespread casino and business closures in Nevada in March, the Moapa Band of Paiutes has prioritized protecting tribe members, particularly elders.
For residents of the Moapa River Indian Reservation northeast of Las Vegas, elderly members who are at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 are also the keepers of the Southern Paiute language, Ashly Marie Osborne, tribal council secretary, told the Las Vegas Sun for a Thursday report. No positive COVID-19 cases had been reported on the reservation.
“Not only are we protecting … lives and people within our community, we’re (also) faced with sort of having the responsibility to preserve and protect our culture as well,” Osborne said. Of the tribe’s fewer than 330 members, 67 are elders, and Osborne said young tribal members don’t speak much Southern Paiute.
COVID-19 has affected other Nevada tribes, including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony north of Reno, said Markie Wilder, a Pyramid Lake Paiute member and indigenous students coordinator at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The largest number of cases has been reported on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, where 24 of 1,200 residents have tested positive, according to a video posted on the tribe’s Facebook page.
That’s 2% of the reservation’s population — higher than the per capita infection rate of any Nevada county or any state in the country.
“Because the community is so small, it’s been happening through family members that are not listening to social distancing and still having the birthday parties, the prayer meetings, the sweats,” Wilder said. She referred to traditional sweat lodge ceremonies performed by some tribes.
Nationwide, Native Americans have the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease, the highest rate of smoking and are most likely to be uninsured than members of other races, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Congress of American Indians. Those factors could lead to complications and deaths from COVID-19.
Many tribes in Nevada also have large populations of elders living in inter-generational households, where the disease could easily spread, said Cliff Banuelos, spokesman for the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada.
“Per capita, we have concerns about the Pyramid Lake tribe. They seem to be impacted the most right now in Nevada,” Banuelos told the Sun.
The federal Indian Health Service has reported nearly 2,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its Phoenix health service area, including all of Nevada and most of Utah and Colorado. The service area excludes portions of those states that are part of the Navajo Nation hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.
The Navajo tribal health department recently tallied nearly 3,400 people infected with the virus, and at least 119 deaths.
Most people with the virus experience symptoms such as fever and cough for up to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems can face severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority recover.
Banuelos said it has been difficult to get accurate data about infections from Nevada’s 27 tribes.
The Confederated Tribes of the Goshute in eastern Nevada were reporting no COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday. But cases have been reported in nearby West Wendover, a Utah state line city where tribe members buy groceries and other supplies.
“With the elders, they’ve got their relatives there too,” Goshute Chairman Rupert Steele worried. “It’s anywhere from five to 10 people in a household, so that’s a problem.”
While many Nevada tribes are taking action to protect members, the financial toll has been high.
Pyramid Lake Paiutes recently closed their namesake lake, normally a popular tourist destination and the tribe’s biggest source of revenue, to non-tribal members, Wilder said.
The Moapa are restricting reservation access to tribe members, and delivering food to households to reduce grocery shopping trips, Osborne said.
The tribal casino closed in mid-March, leaving the Moapa Paiute Travel Plaza truck stop, gas station and convenience store on Interstate 15 near Valley of Fire State Park as the tribe’s primary source of revenue.
“COVID-19 has been very expensive for us,” Osborne said. “We estimate our revenues will be down by at least $400,000 per month, and the emergency support to our people is $120,000 per month.”
The Confederated Tribes of the Goshute have applied for grants from the federal Treasury Department and Bureau of Indian Affairs, Steele said. Meanwhile, he started a fundraiser to help cover costs of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.
Banuelos said smaller tribes have more trouble getting grants and emergency aid, although some Federal Emergency Management Agency funds have been received.
Large tribes may have administrative capacity to apply for grants, he said, “but some of our smaller tribes, they don’t have that capacity, and they don’t really have a general fund. They don’t have an enterprise to help them.”