\Editor’s Note: On February 25th, 2021, I drove myself to White Eagle Health Clinic. I had never been to the tiny community of White Eagle, which lies just 5 miles south of Ponca City. But in my desperate search to find a vaccine, I reached out to a tribal friend who said White Eagle Health Clinic had extras, and that anyone, including non-natives, was eligible for the leftover vaccines. I made an appointment at 9 am, and by 2:00 pm that same day, I had received my first vaccine. As I sat in the chair, the nurses sweetly asked me how I was doing, if I needed anything, and thanked me for choosing to be vaccinated. Growing up in Oklahoma, every resident in this state is aware of the historic injustices done to native Americans. At the moment I received my vaccine, sitting in that chair, in a clinic I had never been to, the ironic juxtaposition of their complete and utter selflessness hit me all at once, and I began to cry quietly. Here I was, a privileged white woman, receiving a lifesaving vaccine from one of the many tribes who have been historically mistreated in years past. Racial issues are complex, and I have no answers on how to fix them. I will never forget the kindness of the Ponca Tribal members that day. Many of my friends went to the same clinic in the days and weeks after that and were all vaccinated. Because of the WEHC, I received my vaccine one month before I would have been eligible to receive it from the state health department. I wanted to tell the story of how and why the Ponca Tribe chose to vaccinate non-native members.
The First Vaccine in Kay County
Daniel Sherron was the first person in Kay County to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Daniel is also the Director of White Eagle Health Center (“WEHC”) for the Ponca Tribe Indians of Oklahoma and understood that he was setting an example for his tribe and fellow citizens.
“Everyone was kind of hesitant,” Daniel said.
“There was a lot of misinformation out there on vaccines, the positives, and the unknown reactions. To try and help ease that worry, I was the first person to take it in Kay County on December 17. We wanted to be able to film it and post it on social media, and show people that this no different than getting a flu shot.”
Daniel explains that each tribe was given the option to coordinate with either the state or federal government on vaccine distribution. All the tribes of Oklahoma opted to coordinate with the Federal government and worked closely with the Indian Health Services department in October to prepare for distribution.
Daniel says tribal members began immediately receiving vaccinations after December 17th. There were no appointments or signups required. The White Eagle Health Clinic conducted vaccinations based on priority, and people were encouraged to walk in any day of the week, Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5 pm.
“When our rollout started, we targeted our elders first. They were a top priority,” said Daniel.
Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with overall higher rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths than any other racial or ethnic group. As of March, Native Americans were 1.7 times more likely than white Americans to contract COVID-19, and 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also were 2.4 times more likely to die from the virus, the CDC found.
Daniel says the Ponca Tribe has lost many, many members, but the loss has been especially devastating as many of those lost were elders.
“The COVID-19 virus doesn’t recognize race, or color, or ethnicity. We have a lot of fresh graves at our cemetery that has passed away from COVID-19, and I’m sure the other cemeteries in the area do too. Due to our people’s high rate of comorbidities, along with other minorities, our death rate is higher,” said Daniel.
“After we started going through our tribal priority people, it bothered us, that teachers were not moving on the state’s level of priority,” Daniel said.
Daniel Sherron, in addition to being the Director of WEHC, also serves on the faculty at both NOC and Northwestern, and as a teacher, understood deeply how important vaccinating educators was. Daniel recalls his discussion with Kim Burgess, who is the Public Health Nurse for the Ponca Tribe and leads all COVID-19 responses at the clinic.
“I knew early on there was going to be an influx in vaccinations, and I knew the overall scope was going to change,” said Daniel.
“I talked with Kim, and we both had the same idea. Until our teachers are vaccinated, sending our students to school isn’t safe for our tribal people, because a lot of our kids and tribal members live in multi-generational households. We wanted to help, so we talked to Shelley Arrott and offered our services near the end of January,” said Daniel.
On February 22nd, the state of Oklahoma opened up vaccines to teachers, but luckily by that time, all teachers in Kay County that chose to receive a vaccine had already been vaccinated thanks to WEHC.
Making Vaccines Accessible to Everyone
After educators in Kay County were vaccinated, the question was whether to open it up to anyone in the community or to continue to limit the vaccines.
“I had family on my non-Indian side that had a very hard time getting through the state’s portal. And that is no criticism to them, their target population is just much larger than ours,” said Daniel.
“We had so many vaccines arriving each week, we were of the mindset that we’re never going to allow a vaccine to go to waste. Regardless of the color of arm it gets shot into, if there’s a willing participant, and we’ve exhausted the people we can serve for that week, then it’s time for us to put those into somebody else’s arm. It was our hope that would foster a positive relationship.”
It was decided by the Ponca Tribe that leftover vaccines at WEHC would be available to anyone, both natives and non-natives, of all ages.
Word of mouth travels quickly in a small town, and news of the vaccine surplus at WEHC spread quickly. Many non-native community residents were being vaccinated and large industries were reaching out to WEHC asking if they could request on-site vaccines for their employees and staff. Dorada Foods, QuarterTurn Industries, all vaccinated on-site at their locations by WEHC staff. WEHC made all accommodations possible and vaccinated thousands of people county-wide.
Healing a Historic Divide
“Historically, we have always felt that there is a disconnect between the tribal community and Ponca City, and this was a way for us to reach out and offer something that was lifesaving and would also foster the hope that it would improve relations between our community and town.”
“Our cemetery is directly across the street from the Ponca City landfill,” Daniel says. “When we go to bury loved ones, it’s across the street from the dump. There are veterans buried there that date back to World War I that fought for the United States of America.”
Daniel understands that the decision to place the city landfill in its current location, just across the road from the Ponca Tribal Cemetery, was made over fifty years ago, and he also says he understands the logistics and financial hurdles of moving it are immense, and that it will likely never be moved. Daniel says he uses this only as an example to illustrate the issues of the past. Despite a history of turmoil and disagreement, Daniel says there is renewed hope on both sides to heal the divides and come together.
“My vision and main goal has been for the local tribes and community to have better coordination and communication,” says Daniel.
Partnering to Over the Pandemic
Daniel knows the fight to end the pandemic is not over but is proud of what his tribe has been able to accomplish to save as many lives as possible.
“If you look at the big picture, this is not an “I” [problem], this is a community-wide, state-wide, nationwide problem, and you need as many hands-on deck as you can get. I think you’ll see that statewide, tribes have really stepped up and have moved at a much faster pace than the state has been able to. That is not to knock any county health department, they are doing the best that they can with the recourses they have. A lot of times, we can do things faster, and we have the dollars and the manpower and the desire to help,” said Daniel.
“The ultimate goal for everyone giving the vaccine is to hopefully one day be back to normal. As many people as we can help, while also focusing on our own, to me is just paramount to fighting the pandemic overall.”