ROBESON COUNTY, N.C. (WBTW) — It may be some time until the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina fully knows the impact the pandemic has had on its community.

“We are so removed from each other, we don’t know who has passed away from COVID or what the death rate is,” said Patrick Strickland, the Lumbee Tribe program manager.

While the community-oriented tribe held its breath during the pandemic’s first months and waited to learn if the virus was airborne, it also quickly leaped into action, utilizing partnerships formed through previous disasters to help those in need. 

The tribe, which has about 55,000 members who mostly live in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland counties, is one of the largest in the nation.

But with high poverty rates — the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 31.5% of the 130,625 people in Robeson County live below the poverty line — and additional health conditions such as diabetes that are more prevalent in low-income communities without easy access to fresh food, the tribe knew it was necessary to help those most in need.

Protecting elders

North Carolina is in the Group 1 and Group 2 phase of its vaccine rollout, which includes administering doses to health care workers, long-term care staff and residents, along with those who are 65 years old or older.

In Robeson County, 30.25% of doses have been administered to the American Indian and Alaskan Native population, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. 

About 42% of people in the county are American Indian or Alaska Natives, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 15.7% of the population is 65 years old or older.

In Robeson County, 36% of cases and 27% of the deaths have been in the American Indian and Alaskan Native population.

The Lumbee Tribe has launched its “this shot is your shield” campaign to educate its members about the vaccine and encourage people to get it. It will host a drive-through vaccine drive starting at 9 a.m. Friday at its tribal headquarters, and will continue until doses run out.

It’s also received grant funds from the National Institute of Health for a campaign focused on protecting elders.

The tribe was one of the first rural areas to launch drive-through testing, according to Strickland.

Since many elders are uncomfortable with traveling to Lumberton to visit a hospital, the tribe decided to bring the testing to them. It reached out to local communities, churches and fire departments to find places older members would feel safe getting tested.

“The more we test — and we continue to test — it strengthens our community,” said Tammy Maynor, the director of governmental affairs for the tribe. “You could be asymptomatic, you are walking around, you have no idea you have COVID, and you are spreading it in Walmart, you are spreading it at church, you are spreading it amongst your family.”

The tribe has completed more than 5,500 tests within its 14 districts. It plans to administer 3,000 additional tests within the next six months.

The tribe has also paired testing opportunities with helping members get cleaning supplies and healthy, fresh food. It has given out more than 100,000 lbs of food since the pandemic began.

“It created an incentive for them to be tested,” Maynor said. 

Ready for Action

Last spring, Strickland said the tribe contemplated how to continue food and employment services in the midst of COVID-19.

“We knew we would not be able to handle and solve every problem that the pandemic had brought forth, but we had to figure out a way to respond,” he said. 

It was the lessons and partnerships with different organizations formed after Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence, Strickland said, that prepared the tribe to face a pandemic.

“Responding to those hurricanes, the aftermath put us in a position for how you have to think on your feet,” he said. 

It’s utilized existing resources — like a community garden, orchard and greenhouse — to deliver food to seniors and low-income residents, along with teaming up with local farmers to get produce like sweet potatoes, cucumbers, watermelons and cantaloupes to those in need and eliminate the need for elders to visit grocery stores.

Those resources were already in place, Maynor said, because of a focus on teaching children traditional farming methods, including harvesting, cooking corn and how to prepare food for the winter.

About 250 families received delivered produce each week.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the tribe also partnered with CORE, the Community Organized Relief Effort, to immediately get dried goods to the elderly.

Maynor said the tribe has created videos with doctors to help convince members to socially distance and stay home.

“I think they are trying,” she said. “We have been in it for a very long time, and we want to encourage people right now to take the vaccine.”

It continues to provide services such as vocational rehab, a medication-assisted treatment program for addictions, down payment assistance and home ownership opportunities with a minimal staff.

“We have not slowed down,” Maynor said. “COVID may have occurred, but we are continuing to provide services to our tribal members.”

The tribe has received a $18 million grant from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to help those who have been affected by the economic impacts of COVID-19. While the tribe is still in the planning process for how to exactly use it, funds will go toward helping low-income renters. 

Strickland said obtaining federal recognition, something the Lumbee Tribe continues to fight for, would have given it immediate funding from the federal government. 

Federal recognition allows tribes to receive services and benefits from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

President Joe Biden has placed support behind recognition efforts, which have yet to obtain Congressional approval.

In the meantime, Strickland is proud of the tribe’s response to the pandemic.

“We did a phenomenal job, in our personal opinion,” he said. 

Coming together while staying apart

Socially distancing has been painful for the community and church-based community, Strickland said, especially when elders were used to seeing their grandchildren daily. Instead, they’re now having to talk to their families through a window or a door.

“There has been a lot of loneliness, there has been a lot of individual quiet time,” he said. 

Tribal leaders have made an effort to constantly reach out to elders so they hear familiar voices. 

Strickland said it took some time before the tribe began seeing the virus’s impacts due to North Carolina quickly moving into lockdown early in the pandemic.

“Then we started to see the death rate climb, and then it started getting that every day someone was sick or someone was dying,” he said. 

The Lumbee Tribe turned its annual harvest festival, which normally includes gospel singing and pumpkin carving, into a drive-through event last fall.

Strickland was shocked at the response. Members came out to wait in a four-hour line for fish fry, waving to people they hadn’t seen in a year. One man joked about not having gone cruising in decades.

“They were rolling down their windows, yelling and talking to each other,” he said.