Umatilla Tribes Remember History In Struggle With Pandemic

By OPB Staff (OPB)
March 25, 2020 6:15 p.m.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have a history with pandemics.

More than 3,000 people live on the Umatilla reservation. Tribal leaders are urging all residents to comply with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's "stay at home" order.


Chuck Sams, who is acting as the incident commander for the reservation's response to the coronavirus pandemic, told OPB's "Think Out Loud" about the disastrous impact disease outbreaks have had on native people in the past.

"The tribes have faced pandemic before; our last one ended in around 1860, but that cost us nearly 90% of our tribal membership — lost to the measles between 1780 and 1860. That memory still lives on in many of us."


Sams said that research he conducted at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute turned up evidence that isolation, such as that being mandated by the state of Oregon to corral the coronavirus, is effective.

“It wasn’t because of genetics for the 10% that survived; it wasn’t because they were smarter than anyone else. They had just isolated themselves. We had people who were away from this area, fishing at Willamette Falls. We had people who were at Buffalo during that time period, and then we had tribal members who had moved out of the larger encampment and isolated themselves. Those were the ones that survived. So we know isolation works. We’ve been explaining that to the tribal membership, that our history is repeating itself. And therefore, it’s imperative that you stay home, stay safe, stay healthy."

Sams noted that his tribal government put out stringent restrictions before the governor's Monday executive order. He said he's seen a high level of compliance with the directives among residents of the reservation.

Sams described modeling that his tribal government has done, showing that the coronavirus could affect more than 800 of the 3,100 who live on the reservation. Estimates show the number of afflicted could be cut to between 70 and 120, with the use of adequate supplies and isolation.

"Those are all just a guess," he said.

Sams related a personal tie to COVID-19. His own daughter, attending college in California, fell ill and showed all the symptoms of the novel coronavirus. She was quarantined by a local doctor and endured several "very tough" days. His daughter is feeling better now, Sams said, but it was painful not to be able to go to her.