Helping our relatives: Native-led response & recovery in an urban setting

During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, tribes and reservations had and continue to have different levels of organized COVID-19 response efforts. However, Native Americans living in urban areas were overlooked.

Great Plains Tribal Leaders Health Board (GPTLHB) a grantee partner, alerted the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) of local needs and community efforts to meet needs of Natives living in urban Western South Dakota. Since then, we have seen organizations, churches, and volunteers come together to tackle the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.

Responding to community needs

More than 70% of Native Americans live in urban areas, off the reservations. According to the 2010 Census, Natives comprise 9% of South Dakota’s population and 12.4% of Rapid City, South Dakota’s population. Some Natives are transient, traveling back and forth from their home reservation.

However, during the pandemic, more Native people stayed put in Rapid City, due to the reservations closing their borders, and the possibility of work, food and social services in Rapid City. The city’s lack of response for urban Indians prompted Native community members to help each other in the best way they could.

Woyatan Church became an unofficial drop-in center to pick up food and supplies, and Wambli Ska Society (a Native drum group and cultural outreach effort) organized food and supply deliveries to homes in isolation due to COVID-19 cases and those in quarantine. It also worked with Woyatan and community members to deliver meals (made by Native grandmas and aunties while praying over it with good medicine) to the alternative care sites that house homeless individuals who have COVID-19 and to homes with ill people.

What will recovery look like in Native communities in urban places?

GPTLHB introduced us to their partners providing outreach and food to Native residents in Rapid City during the pandemic’s height. We had a series of meetings with GPTLHB, Calvary Lutheran Church, Woyatan Church, Wambli Ska Society and local volunteers where we listened, learned and asked questions. They were already doing so much with very little fundraising. So, we asked, “What could you do, what would you do if you had some money?”

The collaboration and plan

The collaborators created a plan to build the capacity of Native individuals and organizations to meet COVID-19 response and recovery needs. CDP awarded Wambli Ska (leading the collaborative effort) a $129,100 one-year grant to provide staff, stipends for artists and educators, training and technical assistance.

The foundation of Wambli Ska’s work is the Native culture as they work with community partners to assess needs, conduct case management, work on food insecurity, provide youth services (mentoring, tutoring and virtual school support), and provide social/emotional and psychosocial support; all led by Natives and serving Natives.

The plan in action

The result has been amazing work within a community to help their own people recover from financial, social/emotional and psychosocial hardships caused by and/or exacerbated by COVID-19.

Here’s what Wambli Ska Society has accomplished in the first few months of work in partnership with CDP and others:

Natives feeding Natives

  • They have built, organized and stocked a food pantry in the Wambli Ska Okolakiciye, the youth center.
  • They have a deep freeze full of one-pound hamburger packages.
  • They receive supplies from Feeding South Dakota twice each week, and supplement with funds for extra meat and protein items.
  • When a family member comes in, they are only asked their name and how many kids are living in their home – no other questions, no other requirements. They give each family four pounds of hamburger (local feeding organizations give out one per family and have restrictions on how many times you can use their services). They have achieved their goal of Natives feeding Natives.
  • There is no signage, and there is no need to advertise. It is all word of mouth throughout the community. Folks give out and have the two primary organizers’ phone numbers. Recently, an Alaska Native woman came in (she was in South Dakota for a Sundance), and a Native gentleman from Omaha, Nebraska, dropped in, stuck in town with car troubles.

Folks also serve and check on their elders. When planning this work and the youth center, the elders were asked for advisement. The elders wanted all focus on the youth, so they could be healthy and graduate from high school. They want this work to be done so their future generations know they are loved and to heal them by providing the building blocks to self-determination. Wambli Ska staff and volunteers take a food box to some elders weekly or every other week, and they check in on others regularly. If snow needs shoveling or a heavy item lifted, they assist.

Youth are indeed the focus of the work of Wambli Ska. The Wambli Ska Okolakiciye youth center has completed the youth gaming area, the school area for virtual school as needed and for homework help and tutoring, the arts and craft room, and an exercise room. They also have a regalia room, with fabrics, supplies and sewing machines plus a rack of items people can borrow, like a “regalia closet.” When kids grow out of regalia, they often leave it for others to use. When kids come for the first time, they can borrow a shawl or other items until they create their own.

Outside they have a co-ed inipi (sweat lodge), and they just built a smaller women’s inipi. They have a pow-wow dance arena circled by shade arbors where they practice drumming, singing and dancing weekly.

They host talking circles for women, men and youth weekly. They host basketball tournaments, started the area’s first traveling basketball team and provide spiritual outreach – they get their drums and drummers in the back of a truck and go to where they are needed.

Staff members are building capacity through training and are certified in Mental Health First Aid, with more training planned in the future. They are learning best practices in managing a nonprofit organization, board leadership, fiscal responsibility and business financial management.

Kids are watching. They are watching and learning from Natives in their community who are leading the efforts to help their relatives not only recover from COVID-19 but grow in their culture and Native ways to heal and bring recovery and health to their community.

(Photo source: Wambli Ska Society)