COVID-19’s impact on the Yakama Nation

Star Diavolikis, Senior Reporter

The Yakama Nation has implemented safety measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to protect their tribal members, such as shortening funeral procedures, limiting office hours in tribal businesses and installing dividers and sanitizing stations within the Legends Casino.

On Jan. 5, the Yakama Nation Info Facebook page posted a flier stating the tribe currently has 1,286 documented cases of COVID-19, zero tribal members currently hospitalized from the virus and 43 deaths due to COVID-19. The flier was created with data released by Yakama Nation’s Indian Health Clinic up to Jan. 4.

The flier states, “COVID-19 is deadly for our people. Native people experience COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths at a 5 times greater rate than the general population.”

Cases and deaths have risen compared to statistics released on Dec. 14. At the time, 1,138 tribal members tested positive, four were hospitalized and 39 deaths were reported.

According to the Yakama Indian Health Service (IHS) Facebook page, COVID-19 vaccines were starting to be distributed to tribal workers on Dec. 17, starting with healthcare workers and extending to essential workers at tribal institutions.

Tribal School’s Maintenance Supervisor Justin Lewis said he “kind of feels a little safer around people” after receiving the vaccine.

Once all healthcare workers receive the vaccine, the next group of recipients includes “spiritual, cultural and/or tribal government leaders.”

Yakama Nation General Council Vice Chair LaRena Sohappy, upon receiving her vaccination, said, “I am doing this more for my people than myself.”

Vaccines continue to be distributed to tribal workers, and will eventually be given to all tribal members. All tribal members are encouraged to ensure their contact information with Yakama Nation’s IHS center is up to date.

The Yakama Nation has created many preventative measures for the reservation to slow the spread of COVID-19. Yakama Nation officials have posted notices regarding what measures are being taken on the reservation from the edge of Yakima to the edge of Granger.

Outside of Granger, Wapato and Yakima, the Yakama Nation posted LED traffic message boards that read “entering Yakama Nation, mask use required.” Compared to the rest of the Yakima Valley, this is one of the few public notices  aside from social media posts, commercials, business owners posting fliers and the “stay safe, mask up” notices on I-82.

The Yakama Nation released Public Safety Order No. 6, which lists which activities are prohibited, which have restrictions and which are allowed. The safety order was amended on Dec. 11, 2020.

Tribal governmental offices are currently restricted to certain hours and follow an appointment only format. Cultural and religious ceremonies are prohibited from including participants from outside of the household, and recreational activities are prohibited. 

Childcare facilities have no prohibitions, however, children must participate in health screening and physical distancing is encouraged when possible. Childcare providers must wear masks.

Precautions have extended into tribal funeral ceremonies. First, obituaries must omit details of funeral arrangements to prevent mass gatherings at the funeral. 

“Dressing service must only be open to immediate family not exceeding 10 individuals, and a viewing ceremony is not allowed unless the casket is closed,” the order said. “Pursuant to traditional teachings, children should not be allowed to attend the service, and elders and other individuals at a high risk for COVID-19 complications are urged not to attend.”

Preventative measures such as social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding handshakes and hugs are encouraged. Once the dressing service is completed, the family will immediately bury the deceased. This skips other ceremonial observations usually acted upon during a funeral service in exchange for decreasing the opportunity for spreading the virus.

“Post-burial ceremonies, including giveaways, dinners, receptions rites, etc., must be postponed until the memorial service after the COVID-19 public health emergency has ended,” the order said.  Traditional tribal funeral services include ceremonies and events that span over two days.

Yakima County is currently in phase two of the “Safe Start Yakima County” reopening plan. Restrictions still forbid many recreational activities such as indoor seating in movie theaters, roller rinks and other public places. One activity in the Yakima Valley currently open for business is Yakama Nation’s Legends Casino and Hotel.

Many precautions have been set in place to ensure the safety of all customers who arrive, starting with a maximum level of occupancy and a security check at each entrance. Before entering, customers must answer questions regarding whether they have or have been exposed to COVID-19. Following this, security proceeds to take their temperature before allowing the customer inside.

Clear plexiglass dividers are placed between every gaming machine and every seat at card games. Hand sanitizing stations are placed throughout the property and workers routinely walk through and sanitize all unoccupied machines and open spaces. To prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the air, the casino is temporarily a non-smoking establishment, with the exception of designated outdoor smoking areas.

Self-serve beverage stations are temporarily closed and have been replaced with stationed workers serving beverages upon request. The casino’s buffet now has limited and spaced seating while also offering a takeout option.

Compared to other casinos in the state, Legends Casino has stricter or equivalent policies to others. At Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn, guidelines are the same except some of the restaurants are still closed, card games are limited and poker games remain shut down.

The Yakama Nation continues to act under the safety order. The order could possibly be extended and have new regulations added or removed once there is more information.