The conference room was equipped with a television screen displaying in real time the number of COVID-19 cases reported throughout the country. But as the meeting began on March 19, 2020, the screen reported no deaths in Oklahoma.
Senior Chief David Hill watched the data roll by as he met with an emergency task force to plan the Muscogee Nation’s response to the approaching pandemic. And he remembers when the state number went from zero to one.
“I still have a picture of it,” Hill said. “I think we all wondered how high that number would end up getting.”
When the current chiefs were young men, the three main tribes in the Tulsa area would have played a minimal role in handling such a huge crisis, especially outside of their own populations. Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., for example, remembers when the Cherokee Nation bought an RV to provide health care services to rural communities, which seemed like a huge investment at the time.
Today, the Cherokees operate the nation’s largest tribal health system with an annual budget of $924 million. And the Muscogee Nation invested $40 million this year to purchase a hospital building in south Tulsa, where it opened a COVID treatment clinic not just for tribal citizens but for all Tulsa residents.
If there was any doubt before the pandemic, COVID-19 made it clear that the three tribes – Cherokee, Muscogee and Osage – now play a major role in shaping public policy in northeast Oklahoma. . And as vaccines have become widely available this year, tribes have become indispensable partners with state and county governments in distributing vaccines.