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COVID vaccine greeted with suspicion among some indigenous groups

Many Washington tribes seem to be rolling out COVID-19 vaccines quicker than the state. But there’s also something identified as “vaccine hesitancy” among some indigenous groups.

A new report from the Urban Indian Health Institute looks at the impact of COVID-19 on Urban Indians in Washington. One big concern is a looming housing crisis if the state’s eviction moratorium expires. The other is about vaccines.

“I didn't hesitate one one modicum at all,” says Mike Tulee, executive director of United Indians of All Tribes Foundation in Seattle.

Tulee got his first shot around the start of the year but says he understands that some people are suspicious of a vaccine that was developed and approved in record time. But he’s read up on it and feels the risk is small and worth taking.

“I would say that it's just in my judgment, is that I'd rather take my chance and gain that vaccine rather than to, you know, my chance of getting the virus,” he says. “And my reasons are a little more personal, simply because I come from a family that's ridden with diabetes.”

He says about 60 percent of the foundation's 104 employees have gotten the vaccine.

That’s a little lower than the rate of vaccination among staffers at the Chief Seattle Club, a Native-led human service agency and day center. Its executive director, Colleen Echohawk, says a legacy of repeated trauma is a big part of what has caused the crisis of Native homelessness.

“Trauma of boarding school, trauma of, you know, other kinds of government systems that have failed Native community,” Echohawk explains.

She says there is already a huge fear of the pandemic itself – because of the devastation pandemics have caused in their past.

“And then also fear of what could be in that vaccine,” Echohawk says. “Is it another government trick or something that's going to hurt our communities?”

She says she's provided a webinar about the vaccine and spent a lot of time helping people understand it.

“I mean, I took pictures of myself, like, getting the vaccine, like we did all we could,” she says. “But there were people that are scared, and that's OK. And we have to support them through it.”

Echohawk says she can only hope that over the next several months, people will see that it hasn't harmed their communities and more people will decide to take it.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.