Some Native Americans in North Dakota skeptical of COVID-19 vaccine

In North Dakota, tribal nations, like the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, are creating communication teams to help quell concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine and encourage people to take it.

pfizer covid-19 vaccine Sanford Health 1.jpg
Vials containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine arrived at Sanford Health in Bismarck on Dec. 14. Submitted photo

BISMARCK — North Dakota's tribal nations have begun receiving their first shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine, and though many view the vaccine as the beginning of the end of the pandemic, some Native Americans are hesitant to take it.

This reluctance stems, in part, from decades of abuse and mistreatment in health care for many Indigenous people. Over the years, Native Americans have been wronged in aspects of public health, including unwanted sterilizations for women and unethical research practices .

The unprecedented speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were approved has spurred uncertainty for many Americans, and for some Native Americans, historical trauma compounds their skepticism of the U.S. government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spirit Lake Nation Chairman Doug Yankton said he does not yet know if he will take the vaccine once it becomes more widely available. He said he's concerned about the Pfizer vaccine because only 1% of the approximately 45,000 volunteers who took part in the trials were Native American.

"To me, this is still in a trial basis," Yankton said. "We're taking it, but we're being tried to see how it works on Natives and the rest of the Natives throughout the country."


In the Pfizer vaccine trials that span the globe, 26% of participants are Hispanic/Latino, 10% are Black, 5% are Asian and 1% are Native American.

Yankton said he estimates about half of Spirit Lake's tribal citizens are in favor of receiving the vaccine, while others are distrustful. As the tribe's leader, he said he is not telling people whether or not they should take it.

Three of the five federally-recognized tribes that share borders with North Dakota, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Nation, received shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, Dec. 21. The Spirit Lake Nation and Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation expect to vaccinate their first front-line health care workers later this week.

Dr. Siobhan Wescott, assistant director of the University of North Dakota's Indians Into Medicine Program, said she understands where concerns about the vaccine come from. But she encourages people to put the low risk of an adverse reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine in perspective, as many people are dying from complications of the coronavirus.

"What we know is that the reactions (to the vaccine) are extremely mild and manageable, and not taking the vaccine is a decision, too, that has consequences," Wescott said. "Not taking the vaccine is risking getting a potentially fatal infection."

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on Monday shared a Facebook post about the reservation receiving its first doses of COVID-19 vaccine . By Tuesday afternoon, the post had received more than 1,700 comments, many of which saying not to trust the vaccine and discouraging people from taking it.

MHA Nation Chairman Mark Fox said trust in the vaccine is also a concern among those on the Fort Berthold Reservation, but the tribe plans to launch a campaign to inform people about the safety of the vaccine.

"We are going to be doing a lot of observation ourselves throughout the state, watching throughout Indian Country as a number of tribes get vaccinated," Fox said. "We want to watch and see what's going on, because if there are problems, we want to know about them and we want to be ready for them."


Other tribal nations, like the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, are creating communication teams to help quell concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine and encourage people to take it.

"We understand that people have a lot of questions and they don't necessarily trust prepackaged information on the internet," Wescott said. "But we are certainly willing to help people understand so communities can benefit from the vaccines that can end the pandemic."

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of confirmed COVID-19 cases among American Indian and Alaska Native populations was 3.5 times that of non-Hispanic white people. In North Dakota, Indigenous people had the most deaths per capita when broken down by race as of Dec. 8.

"As a Native doctor, I understand why and how much mistrust exists in Indian Country," said Mary Owen, president of the Association of American Indian Physicians, in a video published Tuesday. "And that's why it's so important that you know and that everyone know that Native doctors are paying close attention to the safety and monitoring this vaccine .... We can't continue to lose Indian people."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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