DeCora Hawk
In this May, 2020, photo provided by the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, DeCora Hawk poses for a photo as community engagement director at the Thunder Valley CDC on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Hawk works to organize cleaning supplies that were sent to elderly residents on the reservation. (Thunder Valley CDC Staff via AP)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — As the pandemic affects the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, one local community organization is doing everything it can to help people stay at home, fearing that the pandemic could take a disproportionate toll on an elderly population that maintains the language and culture of the tribe.

Before the pandemic, the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation worked to teach the Lakota language to children, as part of a resurgence of Lakota language and culture in recent years. Fewer than 3% of the community is fluent in the language, according to the organization. But as the coronavirus swept across the globe, local leaders feared that the elderly, many who are still fluent in the language, could be killed by COVID-19.

“They are the keepers of our language and our knowledge,” said Kyle White, the director of advancement with Thunder Valley.

As the organization scrambled to respond to the pandemic, the leadership realized they were working with a population much more vulnerable to the coronavirus than in other places. They conducted a survey in April and found that more than half of residents had asthma or other breathing problems. 46% of people reported they had diabetes.

White said they also found that most homes had multiple generations living in them, with one home reporting there were 23 people living there.

The organization made a list of the elderly in each community and began delivering cleaning supplies and care packages to help them avoid having to go to the store.

Although the pandemic has been marked with isolation for many, Lynn Cuny, the deputy director at Thunder Valley, said the work of assembling and delivering the packages revealed that tribal members could still come together as it did in past generations during smallpox and flu epidemics.

“As Lakota people, we’ve been here,” she said. “We’ve endured many pandemics.”

Thunder Valley is also fundraising to continue its response with a goal of reaching $100,000. Cuny said that as the tribe records more cases of COVID-19, the realities of the pandemic and the need for a wide-ranging response are being realized across the reservation.

“Now it’s hitting home and it’s getting to be more real for a lot of us,” she said.

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On Pine Ridge, Preserving Language Means Protecting Elders