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In Mississippi, Choctaw Indians bear brunt of coronavirus outbreak — and the blame

Choctaw sisters grieve for mother
Kristi Wishork, 25, and Kristina Taylor, 18, grieve in Tucker, Miss., for their mother, Sharon Taylor, who died of COVID-19.
(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

When Sharon Taylor died of COVID-19, her family — standing apart, wearing masks — sang her favorite hymns at her graveside, next to a tiny headstone for her stillborn daughter, buried 26 years ago. Fresh flowers marked row after row of new graves. Holy Rosary is one of the only cemeteries in this Choctaw Indian family’s community, and it’s running out of space — a sign of the coronavirus’ massive toll on the Choctaw people.

As confirmed COVID-19 cases skyrocket in Mississippi, the state’s only federally recognized American Indian tribe has been devastated.

The virus has ripped through Choctaw families, many of whom live together in multi-generational homes. Almost 10% of the tribe’s roughly 11,000 members have tested positive for the virus. More than 75 have died. The once-flourishing Choctaw economy is stagnant, as the tribal government put in place tighter restrictions than those imposed by the state.

July brought a glimmer of hope, with the caseload dropping among Choctaws, but health officials worry that with infections rising elsewhere in Mississippi, the reprieve is only temporary. Last Friday, the state recorded its highest single-day coronavirus-related fatality count, 52.

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As a community health technician, Taylor, 53, took the coronavirus seriously from the start. She answered calls from tribe members with symptoms and delivered medicine. But in June, she fell ill herself.

Kristina Taylor, 18, one of Sharon’s five children, learned just before her mother was admitted to the hospital that she’d been named valedictorian of the tribal high school. Sharon had predicted the accomplishment for years — in some of their last moments together, Kristina showed her mom the speech she’d prepared for graduation and the Choctaw beadwork her sister used to decorate her cap.

A desperate attempt to halt coronavirus cases is underway on the country’s largest reservation, which spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“We were just in tears. Usually, if I started crying, she started crying too,” Kristina said. “She always had that faith in me, that I could do it, even when I doubted myself. She knew I could do it before I did.”

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That day, Sharon Taylor took her daughter to the family plot at Holy Rosary. It was always special: a place to mark important events, to be together, to visit the grave of baby Kerri. Other relatives are buried there, too, and it’s where Sharon wanted her final resting place.

But the Rev. Bob Goodyear says there’s not much more room to expand at the cemetery, in part because of another pandemic. The Spanish flu of 1918 took lives so quickly that residents didn’t even have time to put up markers, and 400 victims are buried in an open field on cemetery grounds.

“I pray it doesn’t come to that this time,” said Goodyear, whose Roman Catholic Church has always buried Choctaws, regardless of faith. The tribe recently voted to establish a community cemetery nearby, which will ease the burden, said Goodyear, who isn’t a Choctaw but has ministered in the reservation community for decades.

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Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, said that, as with other Native American communities, coronavirus deaths among the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians have been driven by underlying conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, present in more than 80% of fatal Mississippi cases.

The reservation hospital, where Taylor worked, can’t handle severe COVID-19 cases. They’re sent to facilities elsewhere in the state. Taylor died 80 miles from home, in Jackson.

In Neshoba County, named for the Choctaw word for wolf, more than 25% of residents live below the poverty line. It’s a rural area, characterized by dusty red clay and rolling pine-filled hills. The Golden Moon Casino on Highway 16, with a glittering moon on its roof, serves as a welcome to Choctaw land. From there, the reservation spreads out over 35,000 acres.

Choctaw Indians used to live across millions of acres in southeastern Mississippi but were forced off the land. Under an 1830 treaty, the Choctaws were to move to Oklahoma. Those who remained in Mississippi endured segregation, racism and poverty.

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During his 28-year tenure, the tribe constructed an industrial park and the Pearl River Resort, with two casinos, a golf club and a water park, on its land in rural Mississippi.

In the 1990s, the Choctaws started building what became a strong tribal economy. They own a family-style resort with a water park and two casinos; the tribe is a leading employer in eastern Mississippi.

But the tribal government has been more conservative in reopening efforts during the pandemic than Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and other Mississippi officials. The tribe passed a mask requirement July 1, but Reeves had refused to implement one statewide before signing such an order Tuesday. Choctaw casinos remain closed, more than two months after the state allowed casinos to reopen. About 2,000 employees are furloughed, the tribal chief said. The annual Choctaw Indian Fair, which draws thousands, was canceled.

The tribe has long been a target of hate, members say, and the coronavirus has only made things worse. On social media, people blame Choctaws for high case numbers. Choctaw employees have been harassed at their jobs; others are called names in stores.

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“We’ve heard so many bad things about ourselves and our people. The first thing people turn to is blame and hate,” said Marsha Berry, a tribe member who helped form a group that delivers food and other necessities to people self-isolating.

When Sharon Taylor died, her family couldn’t grieve as Choctaws normally would. Because of the chief’s ban, there was no bonfire for the occasion, no wake with people dropping by for days to pay respects and drop off meals.

Instead, at her graveside, her family shared stories of the woman who valued their tight-knit family and community above all else, who never missed a gathering and always had a grandchild on her lap. They sang the hymns she loved, the ones she’d sung to her kids, and then her grandkids.

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Her 25-year-old daughter, Kristi, is pregnant, and she’d like to name her baby girl for Sharon.

“She was always looking out for other people,” Kristina Taylor said. “Now she’s watching over us.”


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