Mona Zuffante, the public health administrator for the Winnebago Comprehensive Healthcare System, receives her vaccine.
Mona Zuffante, public health administrator for the Winnebago Comprehensive Healthcare System, receives her first vaccine dose in December 2020. Officials say 81% of the Winnebago Tribe 12 and older population has received at least one dose. Photo courtesy of Winnebago Comprehensive Healthcare System.

Before Nebraska’s Winnebago Tribe began its COVID-19 vaccination efforts in December 2020, the reservation’s health care system allowed a representative of the Wolf Clan, the tribe’s overseers of medicine, to pray over it.

Incorporating native culture and tradition was a big reason the tribe’s vaccination effort has been be so successful, officials said. Thurston County, where the Winnebago Reservation is located, has the highest vaccination rate in the state. 

Since the vaccination effort began nearly 14 months ago, 81% of the tribe 12 and older has received at least one dose, said Mona Zuffante, the public health administrator for the Winnebago Comprehensive Healthcare System. Across the state of Nebraska, that number is 69%. 

“That’s really a huge number that is almost unheard of in immunizations alone, let alone, COVID-19,” she said. “I think that we have been really trying to educate our community on the importance.” 

Native Americans are very “grounded” in their culture, Zuffante said, and it’s important that they remember who they are in every situation. That includes public health.

“(We’re) recognizing our culture and doing our best to incorporate that through everything that we do,” she said. “Even within our health care system, we make sure wherever we can incorporate culture, it’s done.” 

They accomplished the high vaccination rates through several methods. The public health department made a YouTube video near the start of their efforts to try to educate the tribe’s residents on the vaccine and persuade those who were hesitant. 

After involving the Wolf Clan, they first got healthcare workers vaccinated and then shifted to the tribe’s elders. The first community vaccine clinic was a success, and there have been clinics every Wednesday since. If members needed a different date or time, Zuffante said they’d do what they could to accommodate them. 

The Winnebago Tribe prioritized bringing in spiritual leaders and knowledge keepers, such as the two elders who were interviewed in the video about their COVID-19 vaccination experiences. Zuffante said that many members were willing to get vaccinated without a whole lot of push, and the department suggesting it often was enough. 

Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, echoed Zuffante’s sentiment about traditions and culture translating to vaccination success.

“Tribal communities are very close knit and intergenerational. We put a great value on our children, the future of our tribes as well as our elders,” she said. “Having dealt with historic pandemics that decimated our nations, we learned from the past and were therefore vigilant on addressing this pandemic.”

The Winnebago Tribe’s vigilance included having health officials go door-to-door to continue to educate people on vaccines and providing groceries to quarantined families. 

The tribe’s successful vaccination program was vital because Native Americans have experienced greater mortality rates from COVID-19 than any other racial group over the course of the pandemic, according to a December 2021 Princeton study

That study also says that limited data also suggests Native Americans have the highest vaccination rates, which provides hope for the future.

The Winnebago Tribe and reservations across the country still face challenges. In other states, rural reservations had problems receiving adequate resources, such as free at-home COVID tests the U.S. government was having problems delivering.

The Winnebago Tribe recently had a shortage of rapid antigen tests for two to three weeks, Zuffante said, but has mostly been able to provide an adequate number of tests to its members. The reservation also has benefitted from having a “robust” public health system. 

“We have a hospital here, which not all Native American communities have in the United States,” she said. 

As more residents get vaccinated, the Winnebago Tribe nears a return to normal. It has been holding events for those who are fully vaccinated, such as its pow wow in July 2021. The event was a success and served as motivation for people to get vaccinated, Zuffante said.

In a video posted in July by the Winnebago Tribe, 13-year-old twins Kamimila and Niapiga Coons were featured getting their second vaccine dose. They said in the video that they got vaccinated so they could attend the pow wow.

Isolation and the inability to hold events has been difficult for Native American communities, gaiashkibos said.

“Our strength in community also made us vulnerable in the likelihood of spreading COVID,” she said. “Isolation was difficult both physically and culturally.”

The Winnebago Tribe has had seven COVID-19 deaths, most of which came  early in the pandemic.

A large part of the next steps for the Winnebago Tribe is keeping in mind those who came before them and those who are coming after, Zuffante said. 

“We remember all of those things as we move forward, we carry them (our ancestors) with us,” she said.  “And as we move forward, we look forward to the next generations, and I think that also helps.”