Chan, Zuckerberg fighting Native American vaccine hesitancy

Dallas Goldtooth, known for his role in the hit FX television series “Reservation Dogs,” slowly swivels in his chair to face the camera in a recent TikTok video. As he looks at the audience, a voice-over announcer says, “When people refuse to get vaccinated but also talk about protecting future generations, that’s stupid.”

The Dakota and Navajo actor joins other influencers — people who have earned the community’s trust — in a two-phase public outreach effort by nonprofit organizations IllumiNative, the Urban Indian Health Institute, and 13 Native groups in states including Alaska, Minnesota, and California. The goal is to overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

The latest phase of the For the Love of Our People campaign is using $900,000 from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to focus on family and generational pride to encourage vaccinations. Grassroots organizations in COVID hotspot states were each given $30,0000 as part of the outreach.

“We’re highlighting the strength and resiliency of Native communities, while calling upon each other to get vaccinated: for our families, our culture and our people,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, which works to increase the visibility of Native American people.

The effort comes as COVID continues to hit Native American people harder than other groups. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention November report shows that Native Americans are nearly twice as likely to test positive, three times more likely to be hospitalized, and two times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people.

More than 1,000 Native Americans have been vaccinated at sponsored events, and more are expressing trust in the safety of the vaccines, but leaders and others say more work is needed. In September, the National Indian Council on Aging reported that 43 percent of American Indians who haven’t gotten a vaccination said they have no plans to receive one.

Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg are distributing $15 million to an array of nonprofits working to build confidence in vaccines among people who have been most affected by the pandemic, according to Kishore Hari, program manager of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

“It’s not about a one-time investment in this community but making sure they are set up for success for years to come,” he said.

Echo Hawk said a primary reason for the COVID hesitancy is that many Native Americans distrust the government due to the discrimination and racism Native people have faced throughout American history.

A 2020 study by IllumiNative, Native Organizers Alliance, Center for Native American Youth, University of Michigan, and University of California, shows 95% of 6,460 Indigenous participants said they do not trust the federal government.

The work to build more trust in vaccines provided by the government, to overcome hesitancy, and to get more Native Americans vaccinated started a year ago when the Urban Indian Health Institute reached out to IllumiNative..

The two groups joined forces, with each kicking in about $100,000 in the first phase of the outreach campaign. One task was figuring out through a focus group what was needed to motivate Native Americans to be vaccinated. “The number one motivator was protecting the community,” Echo Hawk said.

Then IllumiNative used social media, such as the TikTok video featuring Goldtooth, to fight COVID misinformation. So far the #ForTheLoveOfOurPeople videos have gotten more than 100,000 views on TikTok and more than 100 Instagram posts.

The groups’ work caught the attention of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which was eager to expand the effort.

IllumiNative used a portion of the institute funds to create more informational content with Native Americans in mind. It posted videos of doctors, health experts, and elected officials talking about why they got COVID vaccines and encouraging others to stay protected. The grassroots organizations that received money followed suit, working to appeal to the people they serve.

The Navajo Nation is made up of about 27,000 square miles of land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, where 175,000 people live. Protect the Sacred, a nonprofit aimed at empowering the next generation, was concerned that too many members of the Navajo Nation were not taking COVID seriously so it launched an education and vaccination effort.

Using the $30,000 provided by IllumiNative, the Navajo group has hosted a number of vaccination clinics, including one New Mexico event in December in which 900 people were vaccinated. Much of the success of the outreach is due to young people getting involved.

“A lot of (the grassroots organizations) are really trying to work a lot with their youth to create content they think will speak to their peers,” Echo Hawk said.

The Native American Community Development Institute in Minnesota is working with the Native American Community Clinic and the American Indian youth nonprofit Migizi, which means “bald eagle” in the Ojibwe language.

“As we talked to IllumiNative, we realized it’s the young adults and youth who need to hear the message about vaccines,” said John Williams, development director of the development institute.

So 12 Migizi students are working with the community clinic to understand myths surrounding the virus and vaccine. Then they will create a TikTok video to help dispel the misconceptions.

The institute also distributed more than 200 flyers door-to-door and was able to attract 125 people to one vaccination clinic.

In Alaska, Native Peoples Action also used money from IllumiNative to help vaccinate people and distribute information about the virus in different languages and dialects used in Alaska, according to Kelsey Ciugun Wallace, communications director for Native Peoples Action.

The Alaskan nonprofit created social media and radio public service announcements about the virus. Several tribal leaders responded to the messages and agreed to be vaccinated, motivating others to do the same and helping establish more trust in the vaccine, Ciugun Wallace said.

The vaccination rate in Oakland, California, and surrounding Alameda County is high, even among Native Americans, compared with the rest of the state, so the American Indian Child Resource Center focused its efforts on vaccinating teens so they could attend school in person, said Mary Trimble Norris, executive director of the center.

One way the center encouraged local students to get vaccinated was by offering the chance to attend a Golden State Warriors basketball game. To see the team take on the Atlanta Hawks in November, students had to be vaccinated.

The icing on the cake was when the young fans got to fist bump the Golden State Warriors players as they ran through the tunnel and onto the court.

“We were able to provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as a reward for vaccinations,” Trimble Norris said.

The resource center’s work to vaccinate people also went beyond young people. In December, hundreds gathered for a powwow featuring traditional Native American music and dancing along with the chance to get COVID-19 vaccinations and testing.

Echo Hawk said IllumiNative will continue to work to vaccinate as many people as they can and will evaluate its effort in the spring but said having the messages come from Native Americans is already connecting with those who need the information the most.

“We’re feeling really good about the traction and campaign and how it’s being received,” she said.