Visiting Pueblos During the Pandemic Endangers Elders

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Santa Clara Pueblo closed

Three families, including the Rollers, live on Canyon Road, which along with the rest of Santa Clara Pueblo is closed to outsiders except for members, pueblo membership applicants and their spouses.

For the Roller children, visiting their parents in Santa Clara Pueblo has become quite an ordeal, though it is worth all the trouble to make sure they don’t lose their elders.

Susan Roller Whittington, a cantor at the Santa Clara Tewa Mission and at the Parish of San Juan Bautista in Ohkay Owingeh, is a member of Santa Clara Pueblo but lives in Española.

Any time she needs to visit her parents, she must wear a mask, gloves, apply the hand sanitizer she keeps in her car, and present her tribal ID at one of the three checkpoints established in the Pueblo after the state of New Mexico issued a stay-at-home instruction on March 23.

On Tuesday, she had to take her mother to Española Hospital because of early signs of a heart problem, and now she can’t see her mother in the hospital at all.

In the Pueblo, the early head start, schools, senior citizen center, adult day care center and all non-essential businesses are closed. Non-essential government tribal staff are working from home, and essential government workers such as tribal courts, law enforcement and first responders are still working.

“Our mission is to protect the life and health and safety of all our members of Santa Clara Pueblo,” Santa Clara Gov. Michael Chavarria said.

He said it has been tough since the tribal businesses such as the casino, hotel, bowling center and golf course are closed. 

“It puts a financial hardship upon our tribal government when no revenue is being generated,” Chavarria said.

He said the closure of businesses puts a big stress on the community, but knows it is for the best during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He reminded people that no one is immune and should not take their health for granted. He encouraged tribal members to stay at home unless they have to go to the grocery store or to the medical clinic to pick up prescriptions.

“We wholeheartedly thank our community members who continue to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously and adhere to public health directives,” All Pueblo Council of Governors Vice Chair Wilfred Herrera said.

Ohkay Owingeh Gov. Ron Lovato said he is concerned that the Pueblo could be hit as hard as the Navajo Nation.

On Tuesday, according to state data, Native peoples made up 50 percent of the total amount of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico, while they account for only about 11 percent of the state’s total population.

“That’s the reason for these measures,” he said. “When you understand our manner of taking care of our deceased, if you will, and many of our customs and practices put us in danger. It’s been hard, a tough challenge to accommodate that while keeping people safe.”

The same applies in Santa Clara Pueblo, Roller Whittington said. Funerals are traditionally held over the course of four days in homes or churches, and seasonal ceremonies are held in small, enclosed kivas.

“If you think about social distancing, that doesn’t happen when they have to do these things,” Roller Whittington said.

A typical home in Santa Clara Pueblo houses multiple generations of one family, Roller Whittington said.

“We don’t send our parents off to retirement homes,” Roller Whittington said. “We take care of them at home.”

Her parents are both in their 80s, and one of her brothers actually lives with them during the week and only sees his own family on weekends or when he needs to.

In Ohkay Owingeh, the casino is closed, along with the hotel and conference center. Retail stores are operating with reduced hours.

Lovato said they are unable to close the roads to the pueblo or close the pueblo itself because of the geography of the major roadways that run through the village and the people who need to travel on them.

He said the tribal government is only working for essential purposes only. Essential businesses include sewer, utilities, medical, law enforcement and social services.

“The Social services group are working,” Lovato said. “They are busier now than they have been in terms of responding to needs of the elderly, the home bound or the sick. They’re especially not able to get out and get supplies. They were challenged even before this and now it’s even harder on them.”

He said the senior center is closed, but people are delivering food. Those workers are wearing personal protective equipment while working, he said.

Chavarria is concerned about his pueblo as well. 

Although Santa Clara Pueblo has suffered from severe Las Conchas fires and floods back in 2011, he said nothing could prepare the Pueblo for this disaster.

“This is an invisible disaster, you can’t see it,” Chavarria said. He said there is an emotional and mental toll the Coronavirus takes on people.

An April 10 letter from the All Pueblo Council of Governors states Pueblos have enforced a series of protection measures including “social distancing and household isolation, non-essential travel and transportation, outside visitor access, curfews, shopping day designations and tribal cultural event suspension.”

Lovato said on his Pueblo, “We are encouraging people to stay home to the point that we have law enforcement out in the evenings, questioning people, encouraging people to go home.”

The letter stated that workers such as healthcare operations, essential governmental functions and essential infrastructure such as courts of law, medical providers, public utilities and critical school operations such as nutrition programs may continue to operate but limit operations as much as possible during the curfew. 

Lovato encourages tribal members to visit daily for updates.

“This is not something to mess with,” Roller Whittington said. “You can’t take it lightly. We’ve seen the numbers of cases and people dying at other pueblos down south. We don’t want to lose our elders. They’re a treasure to us and we don’t want to lose them before their time. This is something you could give to them, either by accident or by intention, and cause them to leave.”

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