TAHLEQUAH — Growing up in Oklahoma, my knowledge of Native American culture was minimal at best. As a kid, I was fascinated with the art at the Cherokee Trading Post, which was not far from my home in Yukon. Upon returning to Oklahoma from New York City in May, I knew I wanted to learn more about their culture. The global pandemic made this more complicated.

With a history abundant in hardships, how are the Cherokee people experiencing COVID-19? We are all washing our hands religiously, feeling anxious when grocery shopping, counting down the days when kids can return to school, and missing social gatherings. The Cherokee tribes in northeastern Oklahoma face these challenges and more. Many live in extremely rural areas, making food and supply delivery difficult. Elders everywhere are at a higher risk of succumbing to COVID-19. Cherokee elders are especially vital, as they are relied upon to transmit the Cherokee language and traditions to younger generations.

I spent three days in northeastern Oklahoma photographing nine Cherokee women. I did it as responsibly as I could, staying socially distant and wearing a mask. I wanted to learn about their culture and how it shapes their experiences through a COVID-19 pandemic. These women are health care workers, tribal government council members, heads of households, culture protectors and artists.

Where Hugs and Kisses Wait for Safety

Dani Stone and Alison Cole, mother and daughter, are health care workers affiliated with the Cherokee Nation. We met in Peggs, Oklahoma, in front of Dani’s home, where backroads are mostly dirt or gravel. While Alison was inside breastfeeding, Dani showed me around the area. A tornado had destroyed a tree in the front yard. Dani is a nurse practitioner in a rural clinic, and Alison is a nurse. Alison has seen several COVID-19 patients. With small children at home, she takes extra precautions to keep them safe. The moment she arrives home, she strips down and hops in the shower. Her kids have to wait to give hugs and kisses until she cleans up. Like most hospitals, hers is in short supply of personal protective equipment, so they reuse masks and gowns as much as possible.

Tribal Officer

Joyce Fourkiller is the tribal secretary for the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. She lives in Stilwell. This is the home she grew up in, and the home where she raised her children. When I pulled into her driveway, five dogs were sunning themselves on the lawn. During our conversation, a puppy played under a car, and two cats strolled through the yard. The dogs and cats did not seem to mind one another. Keetoowah tribal officers are voted in. Because she is a tribal officer, she has been working in the Keetoowah tribal offices nearly every day.

Keeping the Elderly Quarantined and Safe

Sharon Benoit was photographed near her home in Chewey overlooking the Illinois River. There are no street names in Cherokee country. I followed the directions she gave me, marked by distance and road signs. When I arrived at Sharon’s home, she had piles of family photos and books to show me on her porch. She is full-blooded Keetoowah Cherokee, and extremely proud of her heritage. Sharon is a district representative for the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. She is a nurse and home care coordinator. She has worked to keep the elderly in her care, quarantined and safe in their homes. The program has had zero confirmed COVID-19 cases. In her community, however, there have been two reported cases. 

During our time together, Sharon answered several phone calls. As a district representative, she helps community members find social services and other necessary resources. As we walked to our shooting location, a man was sunning himself near the river. He had tossed out a few empty beer cans. Sharon kindly asked him to take them with him when he leaves. She also advised him to be cautious, as there had been two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the community. He shrugged.

Portraits of Strong Cherokee Women

Traci Rabbit is a visual artist who learned to paint from her father Bill. She is enrolled in the Cherokee Nation and has a studio in Pryor. The focus of many of her paintings are strong Cherokee women. In her studio, there is a board covered with orders that have been placed on hold due to COVID-19 related issues. Much of her income comes from selling work to national parks and museums, which have all been put on pause. At the time of our meeting, Traci had not been able to hug her mom in 49 days. She is taking advantage of time at home to make work, and delve into her creativity. 

Filling in the Gaps

Jeannie Tidwell, left, has been delivering food and supplies to the elderly in her tribe, who tend to live in extremely rural areas. She lives in Catoosa and serves as a district representative for the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. She also works for the Department of Defense, building jet engines. Elders are culture carriers; they speak the Cherokee language and have knowledge of Cherokee traditions. Because of business shutdowns and growing unemployment rates, younger family members are facing more challenges in caring for their elderly family members. Jeannie has been helping fill in this gap.

MaryBeth Timothy, right, is a visual artist living in Muskogee with her husband and dog Mr. Beanz. She is enrolled in the Cherokee Nation, and until COVID-19, she was showing at art shows, traveling and teaching. She has had to quickly pivot her business. Her teaching work with the Indian Dispute Resolution Services, a Native not-for-profit organization, has shifted to fully virtual. She is teaching Native artists in small rural communities in California, Nevada and Oregon how to develop their small businesses and sell their work online.

Defense of Sacred Sites On Hold

Sheila Bird has a background in the preservation of Cherokee culture. I met her and her husband in the Parrington Oval at the University of Oklahoma, her alma mater. Sheila lives in Norman and she is concerned that the Cherokee culture is vulnerable right now. Cherokee tribal offices have mostly shut down or function with skeleton crews. Because of this, tribal offices are unable to defend legislation that might affect sacred sites, burial grounds and cultural resources. Sheila is affiliated with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation. Once a year, they gather at burial sites around Tahlequah for sacred ceremonies. This year, they were unable to gather. Sheila is starting a podcast to discuss all things Native.

Unable to Gather

Keli Gonzalez is an artist living in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. She is a member of the Cherokee Nation tribe. Keli allowed me to photograph her in front of her home, extremely last minute. She let me direct her into a million poses. Keli is photographed here on the street where she lives, in a rental house. At the time of our shoot, her grandmother was in the hospital. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the family is unable to visit her in the hospital. Like most, they are unable to gather. This has also put a pause on all tribal ceremonies.

More Photos of Cherokee Women

Heather Slingerland has been a freelance photographer for nearly a decade. Her photo series about mothers was featured in two group gallery shows in New York City. Clients include Women in 3D Printing, New York Family Magazine and Change for Kids. She currently works in Central Oklahoma but makes frequent stops in NYC and San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram @heatherslingerland. Check out her website at https://heatherslingerland.com/. Email her heatherslingerland@gmail.com.

The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here. Stories and photos are available for republication with appropriate credits. To republish, contact Mike Sherman at msherman@oklahomawatch.org.

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