A Portland-Made PSA Helps the Native Community Adapt to COVID-19

With high infection rates among tribal communities, Exercise Safe Sweats aims to keep traditions alive, and elders protected.

By Eden Dawn June 2, 2020

The video opens with a woman in a color-blocked jacket jogging across the Tillikum bridge. Cut to backyard solo Lacrosse, indoor Crossfit, and a clear message to listen to—and protect—your elders. It's a message for Oregon's tribal community to take pride in their traditions and find ways to practice them safely, and it comes at a time when Native Americans are being infected by COVID-19 at alarmingly disproportionate rates. In New Mexico alone, Native Americans make up just 11 percent of the population, but account for more than half of the COVID-19 cases. In Oregon, the 2 percent infection rate is more proportionate to the 2 percent Native population here, but that number only accounts for those that have been tested or hospitalized.

“Some of the tribes had placed a request to have a positive messaging PSA about COVID-19 in Indian Country because there were some really strange, potentially misinformation campaigns that were going out in tribal communities,” says Dr. Erik Brodt, founding director of the Northwest Native American Center of Excellence at Oregon Health and Science University. and cofounder of the Native-designed denim brand Ginew. “Myth number one: American Native and Alaska Native people cannot catch COVID, because our ancestors survived pandemics in the past. Two was burning up a tree-based medicine in your house kills COVID, and number three was if going to a sweat ceremony, the heat kills COVID.”

So Dr. Brodt’s team partnered up with the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, and health nonprofits We R Native, and We Are Healers to create “Exercise Safe Sweats,” the above PSA highlighting resilience as well as the need to adapt traditions to be practiced at home.

Shot in late April in record time, it was directed and edited by Robert Cuadra. Dr. Brodt produced the film, and with Cuadra came up with a script, a storyboard, a frame list, and actors within days, a feat that typically takes weeks or months.

A still from the Safe Sweats film.

“We're showing an alternative way to sweat at home, but it's important that one maintains their connection to their spiritual and community leaders because we've been through this stuff before,” he says. “Some of our communities survived it. Some did not. But our elders have stories about how to adapt. And we've adapted in the past.”

This pandemic has hit native communities hard for many reasons, with research showing medical schools around the country are ineffective at reaching out to the American Indian/Alaskan Native (AI/AN) groups and helping them become future health leaders in their communities. And the Native community has a long history of inequity when it comes to government healthcare. Indian Health Services (IHS), the government healthcare system for Native communities, is not a welfare program, but a payment in exchange for tribal land seized in the 18th century, and cemented in later legislation, including the 1921 Snyder Act and the 1976 Indian Healthcare Improvement Act.  

But the federal government has repeatedly fallen short of those agreements. And Indian Health Services' current budget proposal for 2021 makes clear the inequities in the system, with an IHS patient receiving just $4,078 a year in spending—a 69 percent drop in budget funds compared to a Medicare patient.

That lack of healthcare funding exacerbates the risks for an already vulnerable population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website calls out AI/ANs as “People at High Risk for Developing Flu-Related Complications,” alongside children, elders, and pregnant women. Add to this the fact that AI/ANs have 7.3 times the rate of diabetes compared to their white counterparts, they have the second-highest age-adjusted mortality rate of any demographic nationwide, and overall life expectancy for AI/ANs is 5.5 years less than the national average. It's a situation that has Oregon's tribal community concerned about the risks they run, but eager to respond with strength.

"Some people asked us like what's your call to action, are we supposed to donate to something,” says Dr. Brodt about the video campaign that’s been shared hundreds of times and viewed more than 100,000 times. “I think ultimately what we want it to show is A: We exist. We are still here. And B: We can respond in a way that has strength from within our culture, and within our communities in a positive way that shows that we will get through this because we have learned from being forced to adapt in the past when we faced very similar crisis. And I think that ultimately, it is a personal message that hopefully, people take to heart and that they see themselves in the messaging."

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