Pride and Protection: Colorful Masks Resonate with Tribal Community

As with communities across the country, the outbreak of COVID-19 created new and sudden public health challenges for South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Tribal Nation. With the virus spreading nearly four times faster in Native American communities than in those of non-Hispanic whites, anxiety in the tribal nation was running high. As cases began spreading in Rosebud, the tribe quickly focused their prevention efforts.

“Young people are the ones who are going to be picking up the pieces and moving forward after this pandemic,” said Brian Dillon, projects coordinator for the federal CARES Office in the Rosebud Sioux Nation. “So, we knew we wanted to emphasize the needs of our children because they are the future leaders of the tribe.”

Through private donations and support from the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act—CARES—the Rosebud community was able to secure masks for most adults in the community. But locating properly fitting masks for all community members was a problem.

“Youth masks were very hard to get,” Dillon said. “We were taking the adult masks and trying to make them fit, but they were uncomfortable for the child, and they didn’t like to wear them.”

Brian Dillon, projects coordinator for the federal CARES Office in the Rosebud Sioux Nation

Anne Meyers, CDC health communications specialist

Coordinating closely, tribal leaders and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) staff on hand in Rosebud began working on a solution. Reaching out to the CDC Foundation, the Rosebud Nation secured funding for 10,000 youth masks, enough for every child in the community. To encourage young people to wear the masks, the community hit on the concept of designing colorful masks with tribal patterns and empowering messages.

“We wanted every child to have a mask that was reusable, and something that was fun for the kids to wear,” said Anne Meyers, a health communications specialist for CDC, who worked closely with the tribe on COVID-19 messages and the mask initiative. “I’ve worked with the CDC Foundation several times, and they have always been so helpful in emergencies like this.”

Intricately designed with symbols of tribal importance, the masks celebrate all 20 communities of the reservation, with circular patterns that represent the interconnectedness of life. Each of the two mask patterns also carry a message written in the Sioux language, “Lakota Standing Strong” and “The Children Are Sacred."

Lakota Sagiya Najim — "Lakota Standing Strong"

Wakanyeja Ki Wakan Pi — "The Children Are Sacred"

Distributed through the Rosebud Nation’s schools, day care centers and Head Start programs, the masks were immediately popular with the children. Offering better protection for kids than the ill-fitting adult masks, the colorful masks had unintended benefits as well.

“They are eye catching, and people started to ask about them,” said Dillon. “So, our story started to unfold through that, and these masks really create awareness about our community.”

As in communities across the country, some members of the tribe were reluctant to wear masks, despite a tribal mandate. Here again, Dillon said, the colorful masks had an unintended influence.

“The children were proud to wear them,” Dillon said. “And that prompted a lot of the adults to follow suit, because they wanted to follow the example their children were setting and be good role models.”

While most of the masks have been distributed, Dillon says he keeps some in his car so he can offer them in cases where he sees children without. As the vaccine rollout continues and the fight against COVID-19 enters a new phase, Dillon and other members of the tribe’s emergency management team are thankful for the support they have received.

“We are very appreciative of CDC and the CDC Foundation,” Dillon said. “They provided us with the masks and with the information we needed to make informed and educated decisions, and that is probably the biggest help in all of this.”

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