Choctaw Indians bear brunt of virus outbreak in Mississippi

Coronavirus

Kristina Taylor, 18, cries as she holds a portrait of her late mother, Sharon Taylor, while she and her older sister Kristi Wishork, 25, recall the care their mother had for her children and grandchildren, Tuesday, July 21, 2020 at their home in Tucker, Miss. Taylor, 53, died of coronavirus at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson on June 26 after two weeks in the hospital. She never saw her daughter Kristina, the class valedictorian at Choctaw Central High School, graduate. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. (AP) — When Sharon Taylor died of coronavirus, her family — standing apart, wearing masks — sang her favorite hymns at her graveside, next to a tiny headstone for her stillborn daughter, buried 26 years ago. Fresh flowers marked row after row of new graves. Holy Rosary is one of the only cemeteries in this Choctaw Indian family’s community, and it’s running out of space — a sign of the virus’s massive toll on the Choctaw people.

As confirmed coronavirus cases skyrocket in Mississippi, the state’s only federally recognized American Indian tribe has been devastated. COVID-19 has ripped through Choctaw families, many of whom live together in multigenerational homes. Almost 10% of the tribe’s roughly 11,000 members have tested positive for the virus. More than 75 have died. The once-flourishing Choctaw economy is stagnant, as the tribal government put in place tighter restrictions than those imposed by the state.

July brought a glimmer of hope, with some numbers dropping among Choctaws, but health officials worry that with cases rising elsewhere in the state, the reprieve is only temporary. On Friday, Mississippi recorded its highest single-day coronavirus-related fatality count, 52.

As a community health technician, Taylor, 53, took the virus seriously from the start. She answered calls from tribe members with symptoms and delivered medicine. In June, she fell ill herself.

Kristina Taylor, 18, one of Sharon’s five children, learned just before her mother was admitted to the hospital that she’d been named valedictorian of the tribal high school. Sharon had predicted the accomplishment for years — in some of their last moments together, Kristina showed her mom the speech she’d prepared for graduation and the Choctaw beadwork her sister used to decorate her cap.

“We were just in tears. Usually, if I started crying, she started crying too,” she said. “She always had that faith in me, that I could do it, even when I doubted myself. She knew I could do it before I did.”Kristina Taylor holds a photo of her mother, along with the graduation cap that her sister beaded.

That day, Sharon Taylor took her daughter to the family plot at Holy Rosary. It was always special: a place to mark important events, to be together, to visit the grave of baby Kerri. Other relatives are buried there, too, and it’s where Sharon wanted her final resting place.

But the Rev. Bob Goodyear says there’s not much more room to expand, in part because of another pandemic. The Spanish flu of 1918 took lives so quickly residents didn’t even have time to put up markers, and 400 victims are buried in an open field on cemetery grounds.

“I pray it doesn’t come to that this time,” said Goodyear, whose Catholic church has always buried Choctaws, regardless of faith. The tribe recently voted to establish a community cemetery nearby, which will ease the burden, said Goodyear, who isn’t a Choctaw but has ministered in the reservation community for decades.

Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, said that like other Native American communities, coronavirus deaths among the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians have been driven by underlying conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, present in more than 80% of deadly Mississippi cases. The reservation hospital, where Taylor worked, can’t handle severe coronavirus cases. They’re sent to facilities elsewhere in the state – Taylor died 80 miles (129 kilometers) from home, in Jackson.

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