Stories from the Field: The White Earth Nation

Posted on by Julia Henry, Anya Kushwaha, and Averie Lico

“We dreamed of saving lives, and we worked to make that dream come true.” These are the words Dr. Carson Gardner, White Earth Tribal Health Department Medical Director, shared during an interview with CDC about the remarkable success the White Earth Public Health team experienced with vaccinating their fellow community members – The White Earth Nation of Ojibwe.

White Earth Nation is one of eleven tribes in the state of Minnesota. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe (White Earth Nation) is Minnesota’s largest and most populous reservation, encompassing 1,300 square miles and serving as the homeland for over 20,000 band members. Tribal members call themselves the Anishinaabeg (plural), meaning “the people.” Anishinaabe principles and philosophies that shape the Anishinaabe way of life also shaped the White Earth Nation’s pandemic response. When the tribe received its first supply of COVID-19 vaccine, they blessed the vaccine, with full support of the Tribal Council. Chairman Michael Fairbanks of the Tribal Council was the first to be vaccinated—showing the people of White Earth that the vaccine was safe.

Adapted for COVID-19, the Anishinaabe Medicine Wheel is central to teaching Anishinaabe cultural and spiritual values and conveying cycles of life, growth, understanding, and achievement. The White Earth Medicine Wheel risk indicators are oriented and depicted using the traditional directions and colors, from time immemorial, for the White Earth Nation Anishinaabe teaching. Yellow is always East, Red is always South, Black is always West, and White is always North. Life begins in the East and proceeds in a circle, clockwise, finishing in the North. Photo by White Earth Nation

White Earth Nation used a multifaceted approach to respond to COVID-19, including meeting the community’s existing needs, preserving the culture, spirit, and language, and embracing the Anishinaabe principle of taking special care of their community members at higher risk of illness from COVID-19—including their elders. CDC’s Supporting Tribal Public Health Capacity in Coronavirus Preparedness and Response grant provided funding to help develop and support the White Earth Nation’s robust COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

Cultural heritage and spiritual values are central for the White Earth Nation. The community responded positively to the Anishinaabe Medicine Wheel being adapted for use as a COVID-19 risk indicator tool on social media. Tribe Cultural Division Director, Merlin Deegan cleared use of the Medicine Wheel for the COVID-19 response, allowing a fusion of White Earth Anishinaabe culture, public health education, and spiritual respect. “When the Anishinaabeg tribe look at the Medicine Wheel, they are reminded of powerful healing medicine,” Gardner explains. In addition to cultural heritage and spiritual values, respect and care for elders is vital to the White Earth Nation. The White Earth Council of Elders tapped into this important value by posting videos online encouraging elders to get vaccinated and to follow CDC’s recommendations for vaccination. Print media, including the reservation’s The Anishinaabeg Today newspaper, and social media were also used to spread their message.

To further encourage vaccination, health officials made COVID-19 vaccines easily accessible. An empty department store building was turned into a mass vaccination site. In December 2020, at the beginning of the vaccination push, more than 1,200 vaccine doses were given at this site in one day.

The White Earth Nation’s multipronged approach led to remarkable success in combating the pandemic. Health leaders of the White Earth Nation focused on building trust within their community through incorporating Anishinaabe principles, such as blessing the vaccine and incorporating the Anishinaabe medicine wheel. In turn, this saved lives and led to positive health outcomes within the White Earth Nation, including:

  • Leading Minnesota in vaccination rates for many weeks early in the COVID-19 vaccination push
  • Administering more than 16,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine (as of September 2021); and

    White Earth Nation staff are all smiles prior to distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by White Earth Nation
  • Vaccinating more than 93 percent of White Earth Nation’s elders.

The White Earth Nation’s pandemic response shows how tailoring public health practices to a specific community’s values can build trust and long-lasting partnership, which can lead to better health outcomes. The community shared various health education videos (e.g., best handwashing practices, best sanitation practices, and physical distancing) as part of ongoing efforts to eliminate COVID-19.  This northern Minnesota reservation and surrounding communities are resilient. They came together and worked with the community to fulfill the White Earth Nation Tribal Health mission to improve the health and well-being of all their people.

Partners: Mahnomen County Public Health Department (MCPHD), Minnesota Department of Health, White Earth Indian Health Service Clinic, and other surrounding county health departments.

Posted on by Julia Henry, Anya Kushwaha, and Averie LicoTags , ,

5 comments on “Stories from the Field: The White Earth Nation”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Thank you for demonstrating how to successfully use the health literacy best practice of tailoring messages to the cultural and linguistic history of the intended population.

    What a wonderful diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility story. I shared this with our State Tribal Liaison and she said, “It is great to know that Tribal stories are being shared at that level. Much appreciated.”

    Keep up the great work Dr. Liburd / OMHHE team………………………….

    It was really nice to hear that so many took the pandemic serious. I’m so thankful that there are people in this world who react to serious situations . This whole pandemic could have been way worse if not for people like these. Thank you for sharing.

    I witnessed a similar commitment and engagement with the Klamath Tribes of Oregon who turned an empty tribal property into a vaccination center were close to 1000 people were vaccinated each day in 2020. The tribe also used their traditional healing practices + spirituality to help members overcome challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe we all have a lot to learn from the tribes.

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Page last reviewed: March 17, 2022
Page last updated: March 17, 2022