Downtown Pawhuska, Okla., is busy these days with filmmakers working on preproduction of the upcoming Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon. You can tell who is in the film crew by the N95 face masks they wear. The locals don’t wear face masks.
Pawhuska is the home of the Osage Nation tribal government and the county seat in Osage County, an area conterminous with the Osage reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. I’m one of about 4,000 Osages who live on the reservation, according to data from the Osage Nation membership office; about 43,000 non-Osages, including members of other Native tribes and white people, live here, too. Hesitancy about getting vaccinated for the coronavirus is a potent force in both communities, and it’s troubling. We have to live together safely. I hope we can do it.
The WahZhaZhe Health Center, which is partially funded by the federal Indian Health Service, has been vaccinating Osages and others here since December. On March 11, the health center opened up vaccinations to people age 18 and older, regardless of race, residency or whether they were patients of the clinic. As of March 23, WahZhaZhe officials had administered the vaccine to 3,079 people.
On Monday, Oklahomans age 16 and older became eligible for vaccination statewide. But at the WahZhaZhe Health Center, the initial interest in the coronavirus vaccine has tapered off. As the New York Times recently reported, some communities, the Osage and Cherokee nations in Oklahoma among them, are hitting a vaccination wall — even though non-Hispanic Native Americans and Alaska Natives face a greater risk of death related to COVID-19 than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. Put more bluntly, they die of the disease caused by the coronavirus at nearly 21/2 times the rate of white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At one well-publicized event in February, the health center staff administered only 120 vaccinations, according to Ron Shaw, an Osage who is WahZhaZhe’s chief executive and chief medical officer. They had the capacity to handle more than 500. Vaccine hesitancy has been a big problem, Shaw told me.
Meanwhile, my daughter just got sent home to quarantine because she was exposed to a classmate who tested positive for the coronavirus. In a community that is swimming with available vaccine shots, we’re still worried people are walking around with the virus and giving it to their kids. Many of the people getting the vaccine at our health center are not from here. They’re coming from everywhere — except my community.
The Osages have been spared the worst of the virus’s harms — so far. The health center has counted only two patients who have died of COVID-19, one Cherokee and one Osage, and Osage County has recorded 56 COVID-19 deaths. But Shaw said the WahZhaZhe count represents “a small slice of the Osage population and likely a small slice” of the Osage population with comorbidities that put them at particularly high risk for serious illness or death if they become infected.
My tribe has a long history with the federal government, and most of it isn’t good. When we ceded our lands to the government in treaties in the 1800s, we were promised the government would honor the agreements in the ways of health care, education and housing. We were frequently disappointed.
On more than one occasion, an Osage elder has told me they are hesitant to be vaccinated because the Indian Health Service sterilized Native American women as recently as the 1970s. I respond that the IHS has made great strides in the past 20 years.
But history isn’t the only reason for vaccine skepticism here. In a state that voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump in 2020 and a county where nearly 69 percent of voters backed him, politics also play a role. Many Osages here are Republican, and their views on the vaccine tend to follow party lines.
In February, a member of the Scorsese film crew asked whether outsiders could get vaccinated at the WahZhaZhe Health Center. I politely said no. But by March, health center vaccinations were open to all, regardless of race or residence. To me, this means too many Osages are giving up their place in the vaccination line.
I’m vaccinated, and I want more of my community to join me. I want us to be able to gather safely for our Inlonshka ceremonial dances this year. I want us to be able to spend precious time with our elders before they’re gone. I want so many things to return to normal, but we can’t come together unless we get vaccinated.