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The checkpoint to enter the Ute Mountain reservation outside of Towaoc. Photograph by Blake Gordon

Inside the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Bold Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

How the Ute Mountain Ute tribe’s race to protect its sovereign nation from the COVID-19 pandemic transformed its southwestern Colorado reservation, members, and leadership—forever.

Manuel Heart sat in his pickup truck outside the Ute Mountain Ute tribal office in Towaoc one day this past summer, the Chevy’s engine idling in the parking lot as the sun slowly arced overhead. The southern Colorado heat was merciless that afternoon.

Small, silver hoops dangled from the tribal chairman’s ears. A beaded bolo tie was pulled tight against his neck. Chimney Rock, a 100-million-year-old, 730-foot sandstone pillar that plays a role in Ute Mountain Ute warrior mythology, stood visible in the distance. Heart’s hands gripped the steering wheel, but he wasn’t going anywhere.

Heart said these had been the most difficult 17 months in his more than two decades of tribal politics. It was not uncommon for the 60-year-old to pull 12-hour days guiding the reservation’s business amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes he took a call from a sick tribal member. Sometimes he fought with the county government over its laissez-faire masking policies. Sometimes his days were broken up by a funeral. Sometimes he just cried in his office.

As the novel coronavirus spread across the United States over the past two years, it ravaged Indigenous communities. Since the pandemic began, American Indians and Alaska Natives have been infected at a rate three-and-a-half times greater than that of white Americans; hospitalization rates are four times higher; and rates of death are twice as high. For the more than one million Native Americans who live on reservations across the country, COVID-19 has threatened every part of their existence.

Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart. Photo by Blake Gordon

Beyond the Ute Mountain Ute’s southern border, the 173,000 residents of the Navajo Nation reservation have suffered more than 30,000 infections since March 2020. Nearly 1,500 tribal members had died by mid-September of this year, including a former Navajo president. In Montana, the Blackfeet Nation reported 50 deaths and more than 1,400 infections among 10,000 members. The Cherokee Nation, in Oklahoma, lost several dozen fluent speakers in less than a year, undermining a tribal program designed to stop the Native language from dying out.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is one of 574 recognized by the federal government and has been subsisting on its reservation for more than a century. Pushed from traditional hunting grounds that once included most of what’s now Colorado, the tribe inhabits an 898-square-mile stretch of land that encompasses a small corner of the state plus portions of Utah and New Mexico. Estimated at 10,000 members in the late 19th century, the tribe now has just 2,116 registered members. Of those, 1,100 live within the tribe’s sovereign boundaries—most of them within the tribal capital of   Towaoc (pronounced toy-yak). By October of this year, about a third of the reservation’s residents had been infected at some point during the pandemic. At least eight tribal members had died from the virus.

Heart had done the math. Estimates, which are likely low, put coronavirus deaths nationwide at roughly one out of every 475 Native Americans. Within the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the number was closer to one out of every 264. (One out of every 500 U.S. residents has died from COVID-19.) For many Indigenous communities, the pandemic also put hundreds of years of history and culture at risk. “If we fail, we no longer exist,” Heart said.

He’d kept the names of the tribal members who’d died on his cell phone. The vast majority of the reservation’s adults had now been vaccinated, which helped ease cases among the Ute Mountain Ute. Heart prayed he would not have to add to his list, but the hopefulness of summer had given way to news of the Delta variant and renewed fears about a potential winter surge of infections.

Heart reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out his phone. He tapped on it until the names appeared on the screen. Heart had known each of them well. He knew the jobs they performed and the families they went home to at night. He also knew how everything began and ended: the cough, the gasping for air, the incapacitation, the rush to the ER in Cortez, the emergency airlift to Durango or Grand Junction, the funeral. Heart could envision the caskets as they were unloaded along the tribe’s rocky cemetery road.

Cemetery on the Reservation. Photo by Blake Gordon

The phone’s screen went dark. Heart held it to his chest. A blue medical mask covered his nose and mouth. He stared out of his truck’s windshield. Chimney Rock stood in the distance, a lone warrior on his way to battle the outside world.

Long before the forcible removals from their homelands and the collapse of bison herds across the West, American Indians were besieged by foreign diseases. Outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, typhus, yellow fever, tuberculosis, and malaria—and the subsequent history of Indigenous populations and mass-casualty illnesses—have been the subject of scholarly research. Despite those efforts to grasp the past, the physical and psychological trauma from those events on Native Americans is still far from fully understood.

More than a century after the Spanish flu killed 50 million people around the world, there’s not an agreed-upon count as to how many American Indians died during that pandemic. The figure could be as low as 3,200 (the National Institutes of Health’s official tally) or number in the tens—if not hundreds—of thousands. “The one thing we know about the plight of tribes,” said Michael Roberts, the president and chief executive officer of the Longmont-based First Nations Development Institute, which works to bolster Native economies, “is that no one really gives a shit.”

When the coronavirus reached the United States in early 2020, Alston Turtle was already studying numbers from the Indian Health Service (IHS), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like most everyone else in the United States, the 37-year-old Ute Mountain Ute treasurer was also watching cable news, where the flood of dire information seemed to intensify with each day. Over and over, Turtle heard the term “highly transmissible.”

Turtle had been in office for little more than a year, a political neophyte among a tribal council with men mostly in their 50s and 60s. He’d spent much of his life off the reservation in Albuquerque but had lived the previous five years in Towaoc. The council was mostly made up of traditionalists, but Turtle preached openness with the world outside the Ute Mountain Ute land; he called it a “new moment” within the wider tribal community. But not long after he took office, his tribe suddenly faced its greatest threat in perhaps a century.

On March 11, 2020, the seven-member council met at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Complex, in the middle of Towaoc. The men sat in the circular, tan-brick, kiva-style chambers. Paintings of the tribe’s final three chiefs—Ignacio, Miller, House—hung on a wall facing the council. A massive bison head mounted high above the paintings looked down at the proceedings.

Alston Turtle, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s treasurer. Photo by Blake Gordon

After a prayer, Heart spoke. The Albuquerque Area Southwest Tribal Epidemiology Center, an IHS department that advises tribal health departments across four states, had estimated that inaction on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation could lead to hundreds of deaths. CDC reports showed that the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions were most at risk from COVID-19; Ute Mountain Ute tribal members suffered high rates of diabetes and heart disease, and a significant number were overweight. At least 40 members were on kidney dialysis. A few were fighting cancer.

On top of that, about one-tenth of the reservation’s population was 55 or older, which coincided with the age range in which coronavirus cases began to be most deadly. Ute Mountain Ute elders were the most important cultural link connecting tribal language, art, and history to younger generations. “We need to do something now,” Heart told the members of the council.

The tribe was in a unique position. While state governments across the country were debating how, where, and when to battle the virus, the Ute Mountain Utes’ status as a sovereign nation gave the tribe wide berth when determining its own actions in the fight against COVID-19. That freedom derived from the aftermath of the 1887 Dawes Act, when the federal government began splitting reservations into parcels, giving away land to individual Native Americans and then opening the remaining, formerly communal, land to white settlers. Chief Ignacio refused the allotment system for his band of Weeminuche—federally recognized as the Ute Mountain Ute—and insisted his tribe be given its own contiguous land. The federal government acquiesced, a new reservation was created south and west of Cortez, and the Ute Mountain Ute were allowed to govern themselves mostly without outside interference. As the seven tribal council members sat in their chambers, Ignacio’s decision 133 years ago seemed prescient.

Although he was the most progressive among the council, Turtle was fascinated by tribal history. He wanted to know how Chief Ignacio and his group of sub-chiefs led their people through the 1918 pandemic. The reservation was still young then—Towaoc didn’t exist—and much of the tribe lived in wooden huts in Mancos Canyon, on land near the west end of the then newly designated Mesa Verde National Park. “I wondered if there was anything that could give us guidance,”  Turtle said one day this past summer. He’d searched for old records, but the more he looked, the more frustrated he became. “It was pretty clear,” Turtle said. “We would have to make our own way.”

A blocked entrance to the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. Photo by Blake Gordon

Almost immediately after the arrival of COVID-19, the Ute Mountain Ute implemented some of the most aggressive policies to deal with the pandemic anywhere in the United States. A 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew was put in place in March 2020, and the council closed 12 of the reservation’s 13 entry points—both in Colorado and in the reservation’s satellite town, White Mesa, Utah. A checkpoint was set up on the main road into Towaoc, off U.S. 491, just beyond the Ute Mountain Casino and the tribe’s truck stop. Outsiders without official tribal business were prevented from entering the reservation, and residents were initially restricted to a 25-mile radius from the tribal border, which allowed them to get to Cortez if they needed to go to the grocery store.

Heart and members of the council argued with Montezuma County commissioners: Heart accused them of downplaying the coronavirus, of a disdain for basic scientific facts. He stressed his tribe’s small size and how Ute Mountain Ute members might have to travel outside the reservation for food, home sanitation supplies, and medical care. He also reminded them that his tribe was one of the largest employers in the county—that hundreds of people worked at the casino and spent their money at nearby businesses—and that masking was critical. No one seemed to listen.

The council decided it would need to temporarily close the casino. When the truck stop subsequently closed, and then later opened with reduced hours, truckers said they would boycott it. Online reviews of the stop referred to the tribe’s COVID-19 policies as “1930s Germany.”  “We had to go drastic,” said Darwin Whiteman Jr., a tribal councilman. “We won’t apologize for that.”

Because wireless internet is virtually nonexistent on the reservation, the tribe set up a parking lot hot spot at the tribal office where children could log in to attend remote classes or download assignments. By summer 2020, the tribe had secured a $10 million state grant to begin building the infrastructure for high-speed internet in parts of the reservation. A few months later, nearly $6 million in federal CARES Act money had been spent by the Ute Mountain Ute on things like food, hand sanitizer, masks, electricity, and propane. Millions of dollars from the second federal COVID-19 rescue plan came in later. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment directed another $4 million to the tribe, then sent nurses to the reservation when the council mandated regular coronavirus testing among tribal residents.

Tribal recreation director K’ia Whiteskunk was put in charge of figuring out food deliveries across the reservation; the tribe wanted families to stay home as much as possible and to avoid travel to Cortez, where masking seemed haphazard. Whiteskunk had grown up on the reservation, joined the National Guard at 19, and spent part of 2009 working logistics in Iraq. She prided herself on her work ethic, her tranquility under pressure, and her ability to serve without complaint. “I was being called to help my people,” she said.

Within the first weeks of the pandemic, Whiteskunk had gotten lunches to the youngest schoolchildren across Towaoc. When schools didn’t reopen, she expanded her effort to more than 250 students. By summer 2020, the program grew yet again. To incentivize members to remain within the reservation’s borders, Whiteskunk coordinated deliveries of thousands of pounds of milk, water, meat, vegetables, fruit, and grains. When the trips became too long, she set up drive-thru pickup lines outside the tribal offices. The Ute Mountain Ute traded ground corn for fresh bison meat from the nearby Southern Ute Tribe.

The Ute Mountain Ute tribal offices building. Photo by Blake Gordon

Hundreds of boxes popped up every two weeks in one of the casino’s convention halls and at the tribal recreation center, where Whiteskunk and her volunteers measured out beans and potatoes and lard. When the food program eventually covered the entire reservation—at one point, Whiteskunk’s truck transmission gave out—Whiteskunk and her crew started delivering food to tribal members living off the reservation, in places like Cortez and Ignacio. When those Ute Mountain Ute were fed, Whiteskunk sent deliveries to a Navajo chapter house in New Mexico that had run out of funding. She even sent food to nontribal shelters and resource centers in Cortez.

What began as a two-week project eventually morphed into a yearlong effort. Whiteskunk didn’t think she was special for what she’d done. In a way, she was grateful. “My mind was too busy to think about all the other things going on,” she said. “This was one of those fight-or-flight situations. We chose to fight.”

If the spring and summer of 2020 had shown the Ute Mountain Ute at its most resourceful, the late fall and early winter would prove to be the tribe’s most challenging seasons. Across the reservation, the Ute Mountain Ute were not immune to the burnout that was occurring across the United States—the feeling of helplessness, the endless rut that had enveloped the country.

Patience was short on the reservation. By October, members passed the checkpoint out of Towaoc and headed to Las Vegas. They went to Denver and Durango. They traveled to softball tournaments in New Mexico. One man told tribal security he was going to work. He later posted a Facebook selfie from Salt Lake City.

On the reservation, a birthday party resulted in 15 positive COVID-19 tests. Several partygoers attended another on-reservation gathering the next day, where tribal officials said 40 more members got sick. By the end of October, Whiteman Jr. said, 113 people had tested positive for the virus—nearly double the tribe’s total since March.

In November, two tribal elders died from COVID-19. Propane driver Dudley Lang was the first. A week later—the day before Thanksgiving—a 57-year-old fluent Ute speaker named Glynis Wall died after being taken to a Durango hospital. The following day, Whiteman Jr.’s 76-year-old mother hosted a Thanksgiving dinner that resulted in 21 positive cases. (Whiteman Jr. said he objected to the meal and didn’t attend.)

Betty Howe contracted COVID-19 in late December 2020, about two months before the tribe started administering its first vaccines. Her symptoms started with all-over body aches that left her bedridden. Doing simple tasks, like sitting up or walking to the bathroom, was excruciating.

When her breathing became labored, the 69-year-old called her daughter and asked to be driven to the hospital in Cortez. Howe initially tested negative for the coronavirus and was sent home with an oxygen tank and a foreboding certainty she would die in her own bed. Most days, she lay still, unable to move, barely eating, breathing in oxygen and praying. Howe returned to the hospital two weeks later. This time, she tested positive.

“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” Howe said one afternoon this past summer inside an office at the tribe’s new Kwiyagat Community Academy, a charter school where she taught a few hours per day, delivering lessons in tribal culture and language to 27 kindergartners and first-graders. “I thought it was over for me,” she said. Howe smoothed the long, gray hair that fell across her shoulders.

K’ia Whiteskunk coordinated food deliveries to members of the tribe. Photo by Blake Gordon

After her recovery, Howe thought about what it would mean if people like her su­d­­denly died. Losing elders to the virus was tragic; what would the tribe look like if the number grew larger? Howe wondered what it would mean to the tribe if these were the final generations to hear the Ute language from a Ute Mountain Ute mouth—to hear those vocal inflections, the sweetness of backend vowels. How, she wondered, would their long-ago leaders, the great chiefs, judge their response to the pandemic?

She’d lived here all her life and raised her five children in Towaoc. Howe had served on the tribal council with Manuel Heart more than two decades earlier. Like Heart, she was one of perhaps 200 people in the tribe who could both speak and write in the Ute language.

The tribal council talked often about Kwiyagat, which places cultural literacy, history, and tribal language on the same plane as math, science, reading, and writing. The school had been in the works for some time and finally opened in August of this year, but it was hardly the beginning the tribe envisioned. One student tested positive for the coronavirus after the first day of classes, which resulted in seven students being quarantined. Parents of another seven didn’t send their children to school for another week.

One afternoon this past fall, Howe pushed a rolling chair from her office to the room that served as the joint kindergarten and first-grade learning area. Two teachers sat on the floor with the children atop a rug outlined with the shapes of green and yellow trees. Howe sat in front of a large whiteboard, next to a sign that said “create.” A few children—most of them girls with braided hair—were seated at Howe’s feet. A couple of boys were rolling around on the tile floor. The principal was coaxing them to sit upright and listen.

Howe had been working on pronouncing numbers and singing the song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in Ute. When she asked for volunteers who could help the class count to 10, three girls stood next to Howe, their singsong voices filling the room.

“Very good!” Howe said.

More little hands shot into the air to volunteer. Howe giggled.

“They’re starting to get it,” she said.

Howe planned to record the children speaking in the Ute language at some point during the school year. It was a small thing, she said, but she envisioned these children becoming teenagers and then adults and someday watching the videos, their young voices unsteadily squeaking out numbers or the word for “refrigerator” or “horse” or “elbow.” Howe wondered if the recordings would bring them back to this moment in their tribe’s history, when a pandemic raged but their people made a stand for themselves, for their tribe’s future. “At that moment,” Howe said, “they will see how far they have come.”

By early fall, there was a sense on the reservation that the pandemic had awakened the tribe to its capabilities. Despite decades of underfunding, broken treaties, and generational trauma, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe was charting its own path. After a successful February vaccine rollout, the tribe sent leftover vaccines to its casino—where visitors could get a free shot—and to Cortez, where the vaccines were directed to the city’s homeless population. Kwiyagat had opened, and the Ute Mountain Ute food program had served thousands of hungry people in both Native and non-Native communities. Not only had the tribe’s members rallied among themselves, but they had also proven to be conscientious and caring neighbors.

Betty Howe, teaches tribal culture and language, in the Kwiyagat Community Academy on the reservation. Photo by Blake Gordon

Three-quarters of the reservation’s adults had been vaccinated. The tribe’s vaccination rate far outstripped the rest of Montezuma County—where the vaccination rate among adults hovered just above 50 percent. Tribal infections had abated almost as soon as vaccines were administered, and now the Ute Mountain Ute were reporting just a few new COVID-19 cases each week.

The tribe’s general population seemed supportive of the continued efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus. Both Turtle and Whiteman Jr.—the only council members whose terms had expired—were re-elected in October. There was an optimism about the tribe’s post-pandemic future, whenever that day might arrive. In the heart of   Towaoc, there were small signs of a reimagining of what the place could be. Work was being done to expand the IHS clinic, and earth movers and front-end loaders were scraping clean a piece of land that would temporarily house the various medical departments. Next to the Kwiyagat Community Academy’s interim double-wide trailer, crews with blowtorches and wrenches put the final touches on the school’s permanent home.

Sprinklers ticked away on a strip of grass in the town’s center. At the concrete skate park nearby, even the graffiti seemed to give a directive: “Find yourself,” one bright blue scrawl read.

If the pandemic threatened important cultural and historical markers for Native Americans, it also brought renewed attention to life on reservations in far-flung places like Towaoc. Within the Ute Mountain Ute, the pandemic exacerbated longtime issues that had plagued the tribe, underscoring the need for better water and sanitation, for fiber to connect the entire tribe to the internet, and for additional housing to break up multigenerational clusters that had created potential epicenters for coronavirus transmission. And those were just the things that were visible. “We still have behavioral health issues, drug-treatment issues, general medical issues,” said Turtle, the treasurer, who will serve another three years in his current role. “How many of those things do you think have gotten better for people who’ve been stuck at home?”

Recently the tribal council has talked about expanding offerings at the IHS clinic, of creating a dialysis center so its members wouldn’t have to drive so far for treatment, and of starting a tribe-owned grocery store on the reservation. “Maybe there’s a better day ahead,”  Turtle said. “This is our starting point, and it’s up to us to determine where we take it.”

Gynis Wall’s grave occupies a small space near one side of Towaoc’s cemetery, a soft, sandy mound marking her final resting place. Faux pink roses are staked into the dirt next to a vase of wilting lilies. There’s a metal crucifix with a heart in its center.

Wall spoke Ute fluently and had a home on the reservation, a husband, grown children, and grandkids. She attended community events, such as the Bear Dance and the Sun Dance. Like many others on the reservation, she’d suffered tremendous loss over the years. Near the grave, a white heart-shaped sign reads, “Mom, your wings were ready. My heart was not.”  Three solar lights form a triangle around the mound. Even in the darkness, Wall still provides light.

One day this past fall, Manuel Heart drove his pickup through the cemetery’s chain-link fence and toward the sea of graves. Knobby heads of sprouting wild grasses popped up from the mostly barren ground, which overlooks red sandstone cliffs where generations of Ute Mountain Ute once hunted. A dusty fog hung over the landscape, all the way to New Mexico.

Heart’s truck tires crunched on the gravel. He slowed as he passed Wall’s grave. “I’ve known so many people here,” he said.

As a much younger man, he used to walk this cemetery nearly every day. Long before he got into tribal politics, Heart dug graves. It was solitary work, cutting holes in the desert dirt, opening the portal so his people could begin their journeys home.

He hasn’t dug a grave in decades, but he still returns to this place. The chairman speaks at the funerals now, and each has taken on its own significance in his life. He finds himself thinking about Wall, about how quickly the virus took her.

There are a number of others in this cemetery who are casualties of the pandemic. Heart spoke at those funerals, too, each limited in size. He talked to the masked mourners. He chanted tribal songs with them, spoke Native prayers. As is tradition, he threw dirt on the caskets after they were lowered into the ground. With each fistful of earth he tossed, it felt like he was losing something of himself.

He’s promised himself that there will be a grand memorial for these people when the pandemic is finally over. He can see it now: hundreds of Ute Mountain Ute members lining the recreation center’s gymnasium, the same place where all that food had once been stored. The event will mourn the people who were lost but will also celebrate what the tribe discovered about itself.

Heart navigated the truck around a narrow turn and drove back toward the fence. Behind him, Chimney Rock loomed, an ancient sentinel ready to fight another day.

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