The Ho Chunk Community Center in Black River Falls. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)
The Ho Chunk Community Center in Black River Falls. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

Tribe is again focused on its membership, but the public outreach helped Wisconsin reach 1 million people fully vaccinated.

Wisconsin celebrated vaccinating 1 million Wisconsinites last week, and the Ho-Chunk Nation is about to reach its own remarkable milestone: almost 50% of registered members have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The Ho-Chunk Nation, according to its last count in February 2020, consists of 5,505 members spread across central Wisconsin. Indigenous tribes were able to choose whether they wanted to receive their vaccine doses through the state or through the Indian Health Service (IHS), a federal agency under the US Department of Health and Human Services. 

Kiana Beaudin, executive director of the Ho-Chunk Health Department, opted for the tribe to receive their vaccine through the state, which Beaudin said the tribe has worked with on many vaccination campaigns.

“The state has made a commitment to prioritize American Indian tribes because of the health disparities,” she said. 

The volume of doses the state, and subsequently the tribe, received from the federal government was slow at first. But Beaudin said “once the vaccine started coming in through the state, it was at larger quantities and more consistently than our partners or the tribes that went with the Indian Health Service.”

The tribe cleared through all its coronavirus vaccine distribution phases—which prioritized tribal elders and Ho-Chunk language speakers as well as medical professionals and tribal employees—in two months. But the number of people coming in for vaccination clinics started to slow down as two obstacles prevented more people from receiving the vaccine: lack of access to transportation for some and a lack of trust in the medical establishment by others.

Open to all

Because turnout among members started to slow, the Ho-Chunk nation decided to open up their vaccine clinics during the month of March to the general public. During the last two clinics open to the public on March 31 in Baraboo and April 1 in Black River Falls, the nation vaccinated 2,338 people.

Earlier: Biden Administration Works to Overcome Skepticism and Lack of Vaccine Access in Communities of Color

Beaudin said the clinic in Baraboo had slowed down part way through the day, but once the nation posted on social media they have vaccine for anyone who could come it picked up again. By the end of the day they had vaccinated 1,554 people.

“We’re just very thankful the Ho-Chunk Nation opened it up to the general community,” said James Hoffman from Sparta, who got his second vaccine dose last Thursday. “Everyone’s having a great time and it’s a real positive for the community.”

Hoffman’s future son-in-law, Nick Hagar, was also there on Thursday to get his first dose. He noted how everything was moving along, “seamlessly.”

“Everything’s flowing well,” Hagar said. 

Paula Begay, a Lac Courte Oreilles member living in Madison, drove all the way up to Black River Falls for her shot. She’d planned to go to be vaccinated in Wisconsin Dells but the line was long when she got there. Plus she had a very good reason to run out and get her shot. 

“My daughter wants to start work next week and I get to babysit my granddaughter,” she said.

The Ho-Chunk Nation is putting up big numbers with its COVID-19 vaccination clinics, which are open to the general public 💉 READ MORE 👉 https://bit.ly/3fQppuI

Posted by UpNorthNews on Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Hesitancy and history

Tamara Buffalo, an Ojibwe member living in Wheeler, said she’s looking forward to being able to “go outside my door and feel safe.” She also hopes that now that she’s received both doses, more of her family members will get vaccinated as well.

“I told all my relatives to get the vaccine,” she said. “Some are a little anxious about it, but since I’ve already had mine they feel more comfortable.”

Buffalo said people have different reasons for being hesitant about the vaccine; for some it’s based on the history of Indigenous communities, going back to health crises caused by the tribes’ forced removal from their land in the 18th and 19th centuries and, more recently, the IHS forcing 3,406 Indigenous women to be sterilized without their consent from 1973-1976. In Canada, Indigenous women have reported being involuntarily sterilized as recently as 2018. And for some, their hesitancy is based on personal experience. 

“Everybody has their own reasons,” Buffalo said. “Some native people have had a bad experience with illness and the medical profession. Overall it’s a historical thing. People are anxious about, ‘how can we trust them now?’”

The high vaccination level within the Ho-Chunk tribe is even more remarkable considering the challenge of vaccinating a community that is spread out across central Wisconsin and often lacks access to transportation. 

Beaudin said she has also seen vaccine hesitancy with the older population, even though they were more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. 

“I was speaking with a couple of people who were hesitant and trying to decide whether or not they would get the vaccine today. So definitely still seeing a lot of hesitancy, but I’m glad that they showed up here and even asked the question,” she said. 

Some of the hesitancy also stems from questions or concerns about pre-existing health conditions, questions they could have asked a primary care physician if they had that kind of healthcare access.

“Mainly it’s like, ’Is it safe to get it with my health conditions? What about the medications I’m on? How do I have to restrict my behavior after I get the vaccine?’” Beaudin said. “So it’s a lot of education.”

While there has been much discussion of vaccine hesitancy among communities of color, a poll last month found the demographic with the highest rate of vaccine hesitancy was white, Republican men

Reaching out

The Ho-Chunk tribe has decided to refocus its vaccine efforts on reaching out and vaccinating members and members’ families, through education, answering questions for vaccine hesitant members, and bringing vaccine clinics to more remote areas. 

Starting last month the tribe held clinics in different communities once a week. In March they held clinics in Wittenberg, Tomah, and Nekoosa. Beaudin said they were in the process of planning more.

“We’re trying to get into our other communities for those people with transportation issues because we know that’s a huge barrier for our kids,” Beaudin said. 

The tribe has also requested the Pfizer vaccine so it can focus efforts on vaccinating 16- and 17-year-olds. She’s also heard some members say they’re waiting for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine so they only have to get one dose. Anyone who received their first does from the Ho-Chunk Health Department, regardless of whether they’re a tribal member or not, will still be eligible to receive their second dose at one of their clinics.

Beaudin believes it will still be a few more weeks before they reach herd immunity, but through social media and personal social connections, she believes the tribe will reach that goal. 

“Our communities are very close and we really do value our elders and our language speakers and the relationships that we have with one another,” Beaudin said. “[We have been] gleaning on that and saying that wearing your mask and getting a vaccine, these are the ways that you can protect your community.”

This story has been updated to reflect that clinics were also held in Nekoosa.