‘We Are Losing Parts of Our Culture’: Virus Tears Through Choctaw Community

CHOCTAW, Miss. — For Jason Grisham, it began with a fever. Then came the chills, lingering headaches and a terrifying realization about what the symptoms might mean.

At the time, in early April, only a handful of residents in his Native American tribe in central Mississippi had tested positive for the coronavirus. But within days, Mr. Grisham, 40, would join a list that has only grown staggeringly longer.

Soon, his wife and oldest daughter would also be sick. All three would survive, but the cases would continue to tear through the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians unabated, eventually sickening more than 10 percent of the tribe’s 10,000 residents and killing at least 81 people.

“We were prepared, we always wore our masks out and we always used hand sanitizer because the last thing we wanted was for the virus to be in our home,” said Mr. Grisham’s wife, Kendall Grisham, 39.

The Navajo Nation, the country’s largest reservation, has recorded at least 560 deaths — a tally larger than the coronavirus-related deaths in 13 states and a death rate higher than every state.

While communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the virus, it appears to be especially deadly in some tribal nations, where poverty, multigenerational housing and underlying health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease have been contributing factors.

In Arizona, Native Americans account for 11 percent of the virus-related deaths despite making up 5 percent of the population. And in Wyoming, Native Americans have accounted for nearly 30 percent of the coronavirus deaths.

Hospital officials said they believed that the first coronavirus case involving a Choctaw member was in mid-March, when a member contracted it while at work away from the reservation.

From there, the cases began to snowball.

Access to testing, ever-evolving guidance from the C.D.C. on dealing with the virus, and shortages of workers and supplies were early obstacles the tribal health care workers had to overcome. At that time, the mortality was high.

“With the initial surge, people were frightened. They didn’t know what to expect,” said Dr. Kerry Scott, interim chief medical officer at the Choctaw Health Center. “There were a high amount of our patients who were presenting with severe symptoms so the mortality rate was a little bit higher than what we were expecting.”

Among those deaths were Nyron and Veronica Thomas. Their son, Bryce Thomas, had to bury his parents a few weeks before graduating from high school.

“Bryce Thomas should be celebrating his recent graduation from Neshoba Central High School with his parents,” a family friend wrote on a GoFundMe page to raise money for the teenager. “Instead he is having to bury both of his parents due to the coronavirus.”

In July, Mr. Ben, the Choctaw tribal chief, issued an executive order mandating that everyone 2 years and older wear a mask. That same month, the Neshoba County Fair and the Choctaw Indian Fair, both of which are big tourist attractions, were canceled.

After more than 60 Choctaw deaths in the early months of the summer, the numbers appeared to stabilize. One tribal member died in August and another in September.

So far this month, though, two members have died after contracting the virus, leaving residents rattled and bracing for a second wave.

Among those is Mitzi Reed, 45, who works as the tribe’s wildlife and parks director and lost her grandmother and uncle to the coronavirus this summer.

“It was not being able to see them that really took its toll,” Ms. Reed said. “Because my mom is up there in age we didn’t attend the funerals.”

In a culture where mourning is communal — with a tradition of wakes that on average last two days — not being able to properly grieve those who have died has deeply affected tribal members, Mr. Ben said.

“You say your goodbyes,” he said, “but it’s a wound that is never truly allowed to heal.”

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