The COVID-19 pandemic that swept through New York and across the country this spring and summer found a wall of resistance in one pocket of Long Island, where leaders worked swiftly and strategically to keep the disease out: the Shinnecock Indian Nation.
While the coronavirus soared in New York to global highs this spring, and some Native American reservations across the nation saw cases spike, the Shinnecock Nation has managed to keep on-reservation cases to just three, with no deaths, tribal officials said. They did it through a series of decisive measures aimed at protecting the approximately 660 members and limiting interaction with the world outside their 900-acre Southampton reservation.
With Southampton Village, with its grand estates and tony shopping district, directly adjacent to the reservation of modest homes and wooded yards, the tribe managed to protect its members from a New York City inundation of the Hamptons that helped cases in the village spike to 112.
Perhaps the most difficult decision tribal leaders had to make in their work to limit exposure to the disease can be seen this weekend with the absence for the first time in 74 years of the Shinnecock Nation Powwow, which draws tens of thousands from across Long Island and the nation to the reservation. The decision to cancel the live celebration and replace it with a virtual-only event had real economic impacts, and was purely driven by a desire to keep tribe members, and visitors, safe, officials said.
Loss of the powwow “is a financial disaster," said Fred Bess, a former tribal trustee and chairman of the powwow committee. There's the lost revenue for the tribe, but it’s also a blow to the hundreds of tribal members and small businesses who sell their wares at the four-day event.
In addition to protecting members from the virus by helping them isolate from the outside world, the tribe has offered financial and other assistance to soften the multi-layered impacts of the pandemic. The nation moved early to apply for federal grants that were made available to indigenous tribes across the country through the CARES Act — and secured $2.2 million it is using to give members assistance with food, child care, utility bills and other needs.
Instituting a weekend lockdown
Protective measures have included locking down and guarding the three main entrances to the reservation at night and on weekends — a plan that continues through this summer. Travel off the reservation was made less of a necessity by the early establishment of a food bank that offered free hot meals, groceries and even supplies such as hand sanitizer. Local restaurants, including La Hacienda and Panera Bread, donated meals. Island Harvest food bank and Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor also donated.
“We were blessed and fortunate to have a huge outpouring of support,” said Bryan Polite, chairman of the council of trustees.
Former tribal vice chairman Lance Gumbs worked with Shinnecock Revival pastor Terry Curtis to set up the food tent in early March, ultimately delivering meal kits to 120 homes on the reservation five days a week.
"The whole concept was to make sure we could feed as many people in the community as possible and keep them from having to go off the reservation," he said, noting that the tent also offered toothpaste, toilet paper, hand santizer. "You name it, we provided it."
The tribe also pushed the federal Indian Health Services for equipment, ultimately securing about 8,000 N-95 masks, Gumbs said, while purchasing masks made by tribal members for each person living on the reservation.
The tribe secured one of the first COVID-19 rapid-testing machines available outside testing labs and the White House. Today, all 64 members of the tribal government are tested on a regular basis, with results in 15 minutes.
“Tribal leadership did a wonderful job of keeping the community safe,” said Nichol Dennis-Banks, a former tribal trustee.
According to Polite, “all those things helped but the biggest thing that helped was the community took it very seriously, and the reason why they took it seriously is because the age group that’s affected the most is 65 and up, and for us here, losing one elder is like losing a national treasure. So our mindset here was to keep our community safe by keeping the elders safe.”
Caring for the youngest
With the temporary closure of the on-reservation Wuneechanunk Shinnecock Preschool, the tribe implemented a program called "relative home-care provider" that allowed relatives of the 18 children who had been attending to receive training in the care of those children, aged 6 weeks to 4 years. Aunts, uncles, grandparents and other family members can receive a stipend for caring for the children, at their home or the child’s, said Germain Smith, a tribal trustee who oversees the program.
When the school reopens on Sept. 21, the tribe is planning a program for elementary school-aged children whose siblings attend Wuneechanunk, and whose parents do not feel comfortable sending them to an outside public school. They'll receive schooling in a separate area of the building to do remote work, monitored by two adults.
“The idea is to keep our kids safe and away from the general public” until the pandemic abates, Smith said.
Boost for online learning
Each home on the reservation, including all those with school-age children, is getting a free laptop and free WiFi through the end of the year to ease the transition to online learning, as well as tribal meetings. Polite, the tribal chairman, said more than 100 have viewed the online streaming of tribal meetings. “We’ve been getting a lot more involvement,” he said.
Online learning for the children includes language lessons and cultural programs. "We've done cultural online meetings, virtual powwows, video nature walks, our chef even did a cooking station at home to do remote learning with the kids," said Denise Merchant, interim director of the school.
The school also devised a free diaper and formula program, "filling a room with diapers and wipes and special formulas," to help parents fill needs without having to leave the reservation.
One tribe member who is participating in the home day-care/schooling program is Linee Matthews, whose granddaughter would normally attend the preschool. Matthews is currently completing the training and caring for her granddaughter while participating in Zoom learning on new tribal computers.
She’s also benefiting from other programs. She was around $1,100 in arrears on her electric bill when the utility assistance program kicked in and caught her up.
“It was definitely a relief,” she said. “I was in jeopardy of being cut off."
Matthews works with Tela Troge, a contract attorney who administers the COVID-19 family assistance program for the tribe, to make sure the programs get to all who are eligible.
Troge said applications for funding and new programs will continue, including one just launched that will teach tribe members first how to grow, and then can, food for the winter. CARES Act funds were also used to purchase two vans to drive tribal elders and others to doctor appointments and to the health center.
But there are still plenty of hard adjustments to come in a year without the powwow.
It "has been a big source of income” for members, said Dyani Brown, tribal enrollment officer.
Powwow chairman Bess' father, Henry Bess, also known as Chief Thunderbird, kicked off the first Shinnecock powwow in his backyard more than seven decades ago.
"Hopefully [COVID-19] will be gone by this time next year so we can sit around the big drum and sing our songs and do our dances," he said.
A virtual powwow
You may not see the colorful native dancers and hear the big drum in person at the Shinnecock reservation this year. But you can experience the 74th annual powwow online. The Shinnecock Nation has arranged to stream some events online. To experience the events beginning at noon Saturday, Sunday and Monday, log in to Facebook and visit the Shinnecock Powwow page, or go to nwsdy.li/shinFB.
You can also check out the festivities by searching for Shinnecock Powwow on the Vimeo video app and website.
You can help support the tribe by donating to Shinnecock Nation, P.O. Box 2397, Southampton NY, 11969.