Amid virus fears, Cherokee Nation looks to serve elders at home

03/16/2020 06:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH – As COVID-19 infection rates and death tolls rise by the hour, Cherokee Nation leaders are asking tribal citizens – especially elders – to “stay home or stay away from crowds” if possible.

“The reason we’re asking everybody to do this is we have about 2,000 first-language Cherokee speakers in the median age of those individuals, the 60-70 years old,” Chief of Staff Todd Enlow said during a March 16 Native America Calling live call-in program. “This COVID-19 presents a risk to those elder language speakers. So we’re trying to find ways to allow them to stay home and provide services to them so they don’t have to get out and about because our language lies in those elders. We are doing everything we can to find ways to take services directly to them.”

In response to the COVID-19 threat, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. declared a state of emergency earlier in the day. The tribe had already suspended travel, large gatherings, Tribal Council meetings, and established a COVID-19 call center (833-528-0063) for virus-related questions.

“We’ve been working for the past several weeks on trying to find ways to ensure that our elders and children have supplies of food in our communities, and the resources they need,” Enlow said. “Some of the things we’re looking at is supplying medicine through our health care system, making sure that our elders have adequate supplies so they don’t have to come out and get that. We’re looking at mail-out services for those things.”

Cherokee Nation Entertainment’s casinos are temporarily closing until March 31. CN’s governmental side was operating, but administrators are exploring remote-work options, Enlow said.

“We’re looking at other resources to try and conduct business, be it teleconference or streaming media, so that we can continue operations,” he said.

The Native America Calling broadcast also featured Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, which has closed tribal parks, trimmed staff to “essential personnel” for at least three weeks, closed schools, urged citizens to stay home and is considering the temporary closure of its casinos.

“Navajo is 270,000 square miles,” Nez said. “So, you know, it’s a big area. We are canvassing each day and really targeting our most vulnerable, which are our elders and those that are getting care from the health care facilities.”

As of March 16, the Navajo Nation had no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“We are doing everything we can to keep this virus out of our nation,” Nez said.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, urged communities to check on elders – but if possible, not in person.

“Don’t go into your elder’s home,” she said, “but give them a call, Facetime them, send them a text, check in on them, drop off groceries. Take care of those that aren’t able to go out and get things that they need themselves.”

Another call-in guest, Dr. Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, urged all tribal citizens to “not be fearful, but to be proactive, to take steps to prevent a contagion and spread of this disease.”

“We lean towards fearful response, or fight or flight response because of our historical trauma,” Payment said. “Part of that is at the hands of the federal government with the introduction of smallpox in our communities. That is within our recent memory. But there’s things we can do today in an informed way with our tribal governments to try to be able to reach out and protect each other.”

Payment suggested taking all COVID-19-related advisories seriously.

“At the federal level, there’s confusion back and forth about whether or not we’re even in a crisis, whether or not this could have been prevented,” he said. “None of that really matters right now. What’s more important is taking action to make sure that you are distancing yourself – social distancing – to do whatever you can to sanitize yourself and also … to reach out and make sure that our most vulnerable populations like our elders and our youth have the resources they need and are protected.”

Closings in and around the Cherokee Nation continue to mount.

On March 16, Northeastern State University President Steve Turner announced that classes will move to an online format March 23 through April 5. NSU campuses will remain open during that time. For information, visit

Sequoyah schools, which are on spring break until March 20, have passed along several sporting event cancellations, including all baseball and softball games scheduled during the break. A state powerlifting meet was cancelled, along with a robotics competition.
The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association postponed all state basketball tournaments, speech tournaments and district music contests.

The quarterly meeting of the Inter-Tribal Council slated for April 15-17 was cancelled due to COVID-19.
About the Author
Chad Hunter has spent more than two decades in the newspaper industry as a reporter and editor in Arkansas, Oklahoma and his home state of Missouri. He began working for the Cherokee Phoenix in late  ... • 918-453-5269
Chad Hunter has spent more than two decades in the newspaper industry as a reporter and editor in Arkansas, Oklahoma and his home state of Missouri. He began working for the Cherokee Phoenix in late ...


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