noative American tribes across the handful of US states with bans on school mask mandates have asserted their powers as sovereign nations to defy the orders, with many also implementing their own testing and vaccine directives for tens of thousands of students and faculty in schools on their reservations as Covid-19 cases surge.
Under the US constitution, federally recognized tribes, such as the Navajo Nation and the Cherokee Nation, have self-governing authority, and so have been able to implement mask mandates despite the statewide bans.
Jason Dropik, board president of the National Indian Education Association and the head of the Indian Community School in Wisconsin, said the majority of Native communities he’s heard from in states with these bans have implemented mask mandates.
The reasoning, he explained, often has to do with the fact that Indigenous Americans have had to deal with a disproportionately high death toll from Covid. According to an analysis released in February, one in every 475 Native Americans has died since the pandemic started – a greater proportion of any other demographic in the country.
“When we have loss, and we have it every year, even outside of a pandemic, but when you increase that amount of loss, there are ways of being that just don’t continue to be taught, and that can be lost completely,” said Dropik.
“It’s not solely a matter of someone’s life, which is in it of itself hugely impactful, but also those ways of being, cultural traditions, language and work that also sometimes pass with our Native speakers.”
State leaders in Oklahoma, Utah, Arizona, Iowa and South Carolina have implemented bans on mask mandates in schools. The Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm announced on Monday that it had launched investigations into the five states to determine whether their ban on mask mandates is discriminatory against students with disabilities.
Leaders in Florida, Texas and Arkansas have also added bans, but due to legal challenges, they either are not being enforced or have been blocked completely.
The Navajo Nation, the country’s largest tribe, reaffirmed a mask mandate at the beginning of August for the 133 schools with students from preschool to 12th grade, on its reservation, covering more than 27,000 square miles in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said students and staff have diligently followed the requirement. As of last week, there has been no evidence of Covid spread within the schools so far this school year, Egli ha detto.
President Nez attributed this success in part to Covid not being politicized inside the tribe, but rather framed in a historical context as the latest monster plaguing the community that must be vanquished.
“With any war, any battles, you got to be equipped, you got to have your armor, and you got to have your weapons," Egli ha detto. “And one of the armors that we have is the vaccine. And one of the weapons that we have is the mask and the hand sanitizers. And so we framed it in that way to where our elders can understand what we’re dealing with. And they assisted and helped us talk to our younger generation.”
The Meskwaki Settlement School, which is property of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi and is the only federally recognized Native tribe in Iowa, also announced a mask requirement for students and staff. And in Arizona, the Hopi Tribe and the White Mountain Apache Tribe mandated masks in schools.
Covid cases on the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma have risen sharply since July, with weekly case totals reaching more than 1,000 in agosto. Over the summer, tribal leaders made the decision to implement a mask requirement for hundreds of students in its high school and immersion school for the new school year. They also included weekly Covid testing requirements in the schools and vaccination mandates for extracurricular activities.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr described schools as some of the safest places you can go in the area thanks to these protocols. He said there have been only two cases of Covid documented this school year.
But more than 95% of students on the reservation attend an Oklahoma public school, quale, although located on the reservation, are not run by Indigenous leaders. Hoskin described the situation as frustrating and said he can’t recall any other time when the tribe’s school system took a different approach on health from Oklahoma public schools.
“In terms of the operations and basic things like health and safety, it has never frankly occurred to me as a tribal leader that the schools operating within our reservation by the state would fall so woefully short of such a basic health and safety measure," Egli ha detto. “Covid and the law, pushed by Governor Stitt, has changed all that of course, and I hope it’s an anomaly.”
Ha aggiunto: "Sfortunatamente, even if it is an anomaly, it’s coming at a great cost.”
In Tahlequah, Oklahoma, which is the capital of the Cherokee Nation, the Tahlequah public schools superintendent reported last week that in the first 10 days of school, they saw over 100 cases of Covid. Later in the week, the schools opted to move all elementary sites to distance learning until 3 September due to staff shortages and rising cases for both staff and students.
Other tribes in these regions have faced similar situations, in which the schools their students attend do not fall under the jurisdiction of the tribe.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, per esempio, do not have any reservation land, so students attend public schools in Oklahoma.
Cheyenne and Arapaho Department of Education executive director Carrie F. Whitlow explained that although the tribes take a serious stance on Covid safety protocols – there have been mask mandates for children over five years old and teachers, and testing and vaccination requirements for teachers in its two childcare centers and three head start centers – its leaders have not had a say when it comes to rules in public schools.
“We’re really trying to do our best," lei disse. “However, because of our lack of authority in public school districts, they don’t really seek the advice of us from a tribe and tribal education department, as far as our students and their families and how do we protect them.”
But tribal leaders have continued to make sure students always have access to masks and understand the importance of them. Earlier this month, the education department’s Facebook page featured a message from Whitlow wishing students a safe and healthy school year.
She then added: “Please do your best to protect your homes and communities by wearing a mask.”