MyKennah Lott — who goes by Littlewind — and her partner, Mesiah Sweetgrass, are caregivers on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The couple take care of Littlewind’s 97-year-old great grandmother, who Littlewind says is the eldest member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, along with Littlewind’s 69-year-old grandmother, who is on dialysis.
Littlewind, 23, and Sweetgrass, 24, met at the Standing Rock pipeline protests, and share a passion for mutual aid work. So when COVID-19 started surfacing, Sweetgrass said, “we were thinking about helping the community in the best way that we can and showing up for our grandmothers, but then we were also thinking about all the other grandmothers and everyone and all the kids, and how we could, as people who have experience organizing, show up for the tribe at this time.”
Between public messages to stay home and the necessity to procure all the supplies required to hunker down, Sweetgrass said, residents were receiving mixed messages. Other limitations like lack of transportation, crowded households and children suddenly being home from school only complicated matters. The women decided to do something about it.
They set out to find a way to enable “people to self-isolate by having what they need in their house and not needing to go outside to get what they need,” Sweetgrass said, particularly tribal elders or those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or respiratory ailments.
They had few resources, but a large community of online friends and some organizational know-how. So they mobilized, setting up a fundraising site, creating and disseminating an online Google form for community member needs based on ones that had been used for other indigenous outbreak relief efforts, and securing a van for deliveries.
Within two days, they said, 300 families responded to their form, filling out their particular sets of needs — from diapers to hand sanitizer to cereal and drinking water.
So the need was there. As for the support? That came flooding in too. The site had raised more than $27,000 by Friday, and food donations poured in from Laramie, Jackson and beyond.
For the last month, they’ve been at it — procuring groceries in Riverton, sorting and sanitizing goods, packing bags with rice, cereal, pasta and other comestibles based on family size, and delivering them to homes from Arapaho to Kinnear and Riverton.
After delivering about 60 bags, they realized the van had constraints. They asked around, and secured a larger space to base their operation out of. “It’s big enough for the two of us to properly sanitize everything and store everything,” Sweetgrass said.
It’s mainly just been the two of them — they have found it difficult to bring on volunteers without having confirmation that they’ve been properly self-isolating, Sweetgrass said. The women are cautious, they said, wearing protective suits and masks, sanitizing all their gear and goods and dropping bags off outside of homes to avoid contact. And they are mindful of their own health.
“So we move at the speed that we are able to to also take care of ourselves and our grandmothers,” Sweetgrass said.
As of Thursday, they had made deliveries to all 300 families who’d requested assistance — dropping off food and supplies to more than 2,600 individuals, according to Instagram.
Many of the homes had as many as 13 residents, they said, some had newborns, and most had at least one member with underlying health conditions. Their goal was to finish by Sunday, before what they anticipate will be the outbreak’s peak.
“We’re just trying to hit that sweet spot of time before it hits hard,” Sweetgrass said. “We’re trying to beat the curve and keep people inside as much as possible.”
While their short-term goals are to aid their community through the pandemic, their long-term goals are more aspirational — helping tribal communities learn methods of self-reliance such as growing food, purifying water and not depending so much on the outside world.
“We’re really focused on sustainability,” Sweetgrass said. “That’s really our end-all.”