Aquinna (formerly known as Gay Head): The shore lands under the hill at the end of the island (general translation).
Wampanoag: People of the first light
In early 2020, when COVID-19 rocked the world and became part of the collective vocabulary, the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe knew what to do. With their inherent resilience, ingenuity, and compassion, they moved quickly to keep the members of the tribe safe, healthy, and protected.
This wasn’t the first pandemic the tribe weathered.
In 1616, before the arrival of the pilgrims, a still mysterious disease caused an epidemic that decimated an estimated 75% of the population of the 69 villages of the Wampanoag Nation. Faced with this story, Tribal Council Chairperson Cheryl Andrews-Maltais immediately called for her community to be closed.
The tribal council passed a resolution declaring an immediate “state of emergency and major disaster”. The Tribal Council also decided that as a long-time self-governing tribe, the tribe should be able to self-govern and be a direct recipient of federal aid through FEMA’s public support program.
That was just the beginning. The unknown seemed overwhelming. How do I notify all tribe members? How to determine the COVID-19 needs of tribe members? How can one provide PPE for everyone as well as durable medical supplies for tribal members due to early discharges from hospitals?
“Aside from our small size in Aquinnah, we are an isolated community with limited resources,” said Andrews-Maltais of the 300 island population on the southwest tip of Martha’s Vineyard.
With the need for a constant source of PPE, detergents and disinfectants, the financial needs and logistical challenges they face as an island tribal nation have become more difficult.
FEMA federal coordinating officer and tribal liaison officer Adam Burpee was put on the job when the tribe realized they wanted to be a direct recipient of FEMA support. The support from Liaison Burpee was sometimes personal and sometimes – like the delivery of PPE – on site.
To assist them with the activities and documentation required to become a recipient, a first for the tribe, Burpee provided the necessary and welcome assistance. Burpee also assisted with resource requests for PPE, emergency food needs, and guidance regarding the need for uncollected accommodation.
“The most immediate challenge for this tribe was the staff shortage,” said Burpee. “Without a dedicated emergency management department, they had their tribal chiefs juggling tribe executive leadership, mundane administrative acts for the tribal nation, the press, and in-depth tactical activities related to responding to an unprecedented disaster. This event strained the trunk to the absolute limit. ”
Burpee said capacity building is the core of the challenge for the tribe. “Building capacity is a huge challenge in the US,” said Burpee. “Tribal governments don’t have a good self-financing mechanism. The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe does not levy taxes, they have no income from games and their tribal citizens are already taxed by federal, state and local governments. “
Shutdown and shelter-in-place orders have also introduced new challenges. Many tribe members were concerned about the need to isolate and quarantine themselves, and community members who were used to meeting and socializing at the community center were no longer able to do so due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In her fourth term in office, Chairwoman Andrews-Maltais is no stranger to what the tribal community needs: She has created a complete COVID-19 Emergency Response Services Team (ERST) from scratch. Your natural resources department was more than adequate for ordinary and even extraordinary disaster relief operations, but that response was different.
“We had to be as inclusive as possible to meet these emergency needs of all of our tribal members,” said Andrews-Maltais. “So we hired tribesmen as our emergency response team. This not only created much-needed work as most of the people were unemployed due to the pandemic. It also created a sense of familiarity, comfort, and connectedness for our tribe members, especially our elders, so that they would not feel so isolated. “
FEMA’s Regina Marotto also served as a tribal liaison at the time. “FEMA provided a lot of PPE: masks, breathing apparatus, face protection, gowns; and medical accessories: thermometers, alcohol pads, ice packs as well as emergency boxes and hand disinfectants, ”said Marotto.
“Many tribal nations remain suspicious of the federal government; However, we did manage to successfully develop our relationships with the New England tribes during the COVID emergency, ”noted Marotto. “It helped that our team stayed the same for the most part instead of switching different people in and out. In my experience in the Indian country, the same, consistent and effective point of contact often leads to trust and further building of relationships. “
This is confirmed by the chairman Andrews-Maltais. “To know that FEMA is there with material, support and manpower is encouraging,” she said. “We feel safe and comfortable in our federal partnership.”
While the Wampanoag tribe of Aquinnah had mastered and overcome adversity on their own in the past, this situation required external resources. “The limiting factor in almost all (Andrews-Maltais’) decisions was not a lack of skill or access – but uncertainty about funding,” said Burpee. “We offered them the opportunity to seek reimbursement for the immediate needs identified by the Chair and her staff to protect the tribesmen and their people.”
All sorts of local and state agencies – from the Indian Health Service to the Salvation Army to FEMA – have got involved to help with funds or people or goods and services.
These partnerships manage to bring the tribe to a new normal while keeping the number of COVID cases relatively low.
“After identifying our capacities, we reached out to the other tribes in the region and shared the resources we were able to secure, ”said Andrews-Maltais. “For us as tribal nations, we are all related and feel particularly close in times of stress and struggle. I couldn’t have been happier to help our other tribal brothers and sisters. “
She added that the COVID-19 response team was vital to her efforts. “Whatever it took to get the job done, they did,” said Andrews-Maltais. “They are the backbone of the entire initiative and operation. Without their commitment and dedication to our / their employees, we could never have been as successful as we were. They have given or delivered thousands of meals and PPE and vaccinated hundreds of our tribal community members – all with a smile.
Although the crisis phase of the pandemic is over, Andrews-Maltais emphasizes that the cooperation is ongoing.
“We will continue to provide food, PPE, durable goods, electronics and general welfare support to our tribe members for as long as we can reach them,” said Andrews-Maltais.
FEMA representatives continue to support the tribe. If necessary or desired, they register with Aquinnah for weekly personal coordination meetings. Monthly meetings are held with all the tribes in the area to provide updates, share information and have a face-to-face conversation with FEMA.
The tribe’s sense of community – coupled with their in-depth knowledge and consistent implementation of emergency management protocols – has kept them relatively healthy and intact, despite the fact that they have suffered losses of tribal members due to the virus
“We have done our best and will continue to try to stop the spread and keep our tribal community as safe as possible,” said Chairwoman Andrews-Maltais. “As the leader of my tribe, it is up to me to do everything I can to ensure that my people and mine are as safe as possible. Therefore, we will continue to work with FEMA and our other federal partners to do just that. “
The literal translation of the tribe’s name may never have seemed more appropriate. For “the people of the first light” on the bank under the hill at the end of the island, the Aquinnah Wampanoag continues to shine brightly as a beacon of hope, strength and resilience.