CASPER – Amid a severe shortage of housing for tribal members on the Wind River Reservation, a new challenge has further illustrated the crisis the tribes face: the coronavirus.
While both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes have recently been awarded grants to build more housing, the money won’t come close to fixing the problem, and it won’t help as the tribes deal with the more immediate challenge of mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
Twenty-three new cases have been confirmed in Fremont County in the last two days, and the portion of Wyoming coronavirus patients who are American Indian has risen to 16 percent.
And as Wyoming’s two tribes work to limit the spread of the virus — which leaders of both tribes say is no longer contained to one or two families — they face challenges that counties and cities across Wyoming don’t have to contend with.
Many tribal members already are more susceptible to the virus due to higher rates of preexisting health conditions, but adding to the challenge of containing the illness are the lack of housing and overcrowded conditions.
Earlier this week, tribal leaders said four Northern Arapaho citizens had died from complications of the illness.
Three of those deaths were among immediate family members. It’s unclear whether they, or any other family members, lived together.
“We out here, unfortunately, live two to three families in one home,” Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter explained. “If you have one person who tests positive in the house of seven, it really puts a lot of people at risk. And there are even some families that (have) higher numbers than seven in a household.”
At the same time, many of those same tribal members living in multi-generational or multi-family homes could have preexisting conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.
Two of the four Northern Arapaho citizens who died had preexisting health conditions.
Native American advocacy organizations and tribal leaders from both tribes have warned that COVID-19 could have a devastating effect on the tribes because of their higher rates of diabetes and heart disease, for example, which make it more likely that Indigenous people will suffer from complications or even die from the illness.
“So that makes it very hard for tribal members to combat something like this,” Spoonhunter said, adding that the tribe has opened up its Wind River Hotel & Casino for individuals to quarantine away from home to avoid infecting others. The casino has been closed due to the pandemic.
While the first cases on the reservation were initially contained to a couple families, leaders said last week that the virus is no longer contained and is spreading through the tribes.
In addition to many families living in a crowded home, the two Wind River tribes are also struggling to keep members, especially younger ones, indoors as the tribes continue to enforce a stay-at-home order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“The coronavirus is spreading rapidly through our communities and we realize a large percentage of our population have other existing health conditions, and it is so important to protect yourself and your families,” Eastern Shoshone Business Council Vice-Chair Karen Snyder said in a web address last week.
The order has been tough for many to follow, especially the younger population on the reservation, and many are becoming restless.
Still, leaders have said it’s a necessary tool — along with practicing other recommendations like frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing cloth masks — to keep as many members as possible from contracting the illness, even knowing that many might be in close quarters at home.
“It was it was a no-brainier for us,” Spoonhunter said. “We needed to make sure that we took care of our people and made sure they were safe, especially with our elders who are more vulnerable to this.”
While the order has caused many to become restless and disregard it, Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Fort Washakie, said she’s heard from some tribal citizens that the extra time inside with family has had a silver lining.
The stay-at-home order has allowed family members to spend more time together cooking meals and has given grandparents the chance to tell stories to grandchildren, she continued.
“All of this is not bad; there’s some good,” Clifford said. “A grandma was saying, ‘I’m meeting with my grandchildren; we sit down and eat and I’m telling them more stories. Stories about me, about my life, about their great-grandparents, when I normally wouldn’t,’ and that’s really good because they’re hearing more oral stories.”
Both tribes have recently been awarded millions in federal grants to address the need. Still, the homes they’ll build with the money won’t fully address the need.
Northern Arapaho housing officials have said they need about 600 units to meet demand, while Charles Washakie, executive director of the Eastern Shoshone Housing Authority, said Friday that his tribe will need more than 500 units by 2025 to meet the needs of a growing population with high numbers of young people.
Washakie said 642 people are reported to live in 136 Eastern Shoshone housing units right now — more than 4.5 people per home. And he said that number is likely low because tenants are hesitant to report higher numbers living in one home to avoid getting in trouble.
For Washakie, the pandemic has also affected his workers — and the work they can do.
He’s had to lay off many housing employees and limit maintenance to emergency repairs to protect his employees. It’s also meant he and his workers haven’t been able to start work building new homes to help ease the shortage.
The Eastern Shoshone Tribe was recently awarded a $4.2 million grant through U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Indian Housing Block Grant Program. The money will be used to build two dozen units.
But because of the pandemic, he can’t start work on the new homes or complete other rehabilitation project he has grant money for. And those grants have deadlines to meet, he added.
“We don’t know how long this shutdown is gonna be,” Washakie said, referring to the reservation’s stay-at-home order. “We’ll be able to struggle through it; we’re just in a bind right now.”