Shoshone-Bannock Tribes contend with COVID-19

Screenshot from the COVID-19 PSA - Mask Up - from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and the Office of Emergency Management

“We are a sovereign nation, practicing our inherent and self-governing rights.”

This is a quote from the Shoshone-Bannock website which communicates the strong sense of independence that characterizes their tribes and a strength which has helped them persevere through a crippling global pandemic.

Two Tribes in one

The Shoshone-Bannock reservation is located in Fort Hall, Idaho, just north of Pocatello.

The term “tribal sovereignty” refers to the power of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes to govern themselves. This means they can determine who qualifies for official membership within their tribes. It also refers to the specific geographic area that is known as the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.

According to the Tribe’s website, “The Tribes inherent right to self-governance has been in place prior to the European arrival on the North American continent.”

The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes are “organized under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, and they operate under a constitution approved on April 30, 1936.”

The Tribes are now a single organized and united government, but they are referred to in the plural sense because they represent a fusion of two different tribes, the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes.

A map of the original lands of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.
A map of the original lands of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Photo credit: David Goerg

COVID-19 and the Tribes

Despite the fact that the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes are a separate and sovereign people with their own unique form of government, the COVID-19 pandemic was as challenging for them as it was for the rest of the nation.

Randy’L Teton, Public Affairs Manager/C19 Public Information Officer for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, was able to help her people weather the storm of COVID-19 through a public service announcement campaign.

“Our population on the reservation is 4,000 plus,” Teton said. “Even though we have 6,000 tribal members, not all of our tribal members live on the reservation. They either work outside of the state or they live off the reservation.”

The reservation is divided into five different sections: Fort Hall, Lincoln Creek, Ross Fork, Gibson and Bannock Creek.

“I think our (COVID-19) numbers were a little bit lower than our neighbors, Pocatello and Blackfoot,” Teton said.

To date, the Tribes have lost a total of 21 members due to COVID-19.

“Twenty-one doesn’t seem like that many but it’s a lot to us,” Teton continued. “Every death of an elder is like losing a library.”

Speakers of the Shoshone and Bannock languages are in short supply on the reservation. The Tribes hope to pass their languages down to future generations, but many of their fluent speakers are now elderly, and COVID-19 is especially threatening to this particular demographic.

“It was a lifetime of information that you can never retrieve,” said Louise Dixey, the cultural resources director for the Tribes, commenting on the loss of the elders due to COVID-19. “Our teachings are handed down through what you would call orality, so they’re not written. It’s really devastating to the Tribes to lose our language speakers.”

Dixey helps with many language preservation efforts on the reservation.

“We offer both Shoshone and Bannock language classes,” Dixey continued. “A positive thing that came out of having language classes by Zoom (due to lockdown restrictions) is that we’ve had a lot of tribal members that live elsewhere, out of state, now taking part in the language classes, whereas they weren’t able to do that when we had in-person classes. So we are reaching a lot more people.”

The Tribes voluntarily accepted assistance from the federal government in their efforts to control the pandemic and received funding from the COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill.

“We do go by the CDC regulations,” Teton said.

Additionally, the Tribes were able to coordinate their efforts with local government officials.

“Living in the state of Idaho, we were conscious of what was going on with the state,” Teton said. “And we participated in monthly calls with the governor. He actually had calls with the five tribes of Idaho. It was mainly for the tribal leaders to provide updates to the governor on what was going on in our communities.”

Screenshot from COVID-19 PSA - Mask Up - from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and the Office of Emergency Management
Screenshot from COVID-19 PSA – Mask Up – from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and the Office of Emergency Management

Public service announcements

Under Teton’s direction, the Tribes have produced public service announcements, encouraging tribal members to wear masks and accept the vaccine.

“We’ve done a lot, we’ve even created a lot of awesome PSA’s which we have run on TV,” Teton said. “We even had one with my great aunt talking in the Bannock language, telling people to continue to wear your face mask.”

The most viewed video features tribal member Casper Appenay. He speaks about his personal experience with COVID-19 and the time he spent recovering from it.

“He’s well known in the area so he got a lot of hits, I think about two million,” Teton said.

So far, Teton has managed to put together 11 videos that address different elements of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One video titled “Taking Care of Your Mental Health During a Pandemic” encourages tribal members to use humor as a way to keep mentally healthy during the stressful conditions of isolation and other social restrictions.

The video also encouraged tribal members to grieve properly when facing the loss of a loved one, and advertised counseling and family services as a readily available resource.

Hard work and cultural sensitivity

According to Teton, producing the PSAs takes a lot of time and effort. The videos are all produced locally on the reservation, and the people featured in them are often well-known members of the community.

“Mike is our web developer, and I do the talking points,” Teton said. “We work together. We go to people and we interview them.”

Teton also pointed out that encouraging tribal members to participate in the videos is no easy task, due to the unique characteristics of tribal culture and society.

“I understand Indian culture and language, and I’ll engage with them on that level,” Teton said. “They want to trust you, but sometimes they think, ‘Oh, you talk too much,’ because around here that’s not really native. You can’t talk too much.”

Teton’s background in public relations has helped her to craft videos that meet the needs of her community.

“For me to be in communications, I have to understand native culture,” Teton said. “I’m from here, I’m sensitive to those things and I feel like that’s what makes us successful. We’re culturally sensitive.”

Teton says that while the Tribes have largely seen the number of COVID-19 cases on their reservation slow to a halt, they are still concerned about the possible resurgence of variants in the fall.

“The community is starting to see a decrease in the numbers,” Teton continued. “You know, getting a little bit back to somewhat normal. But now, health officials are warning us to be careful because variants are coming in, and people that did get vaccinated are still getting the variant, so it’s a little scary. We’ll just have to go with the flow.”

For more information about the history of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes, click here.

For more information about the unique Tribal Government of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, click here.

To view the COVID-19 PSA’s, click here.

To contact the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, click here.