How the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Has Been Impacted by COVID-19

By Caleb Tuttle

Pine Ridge, South Dakota

Despite its disadvantages, COVID-19 has also helped bring the community together (Photo Credit: Al Jazeera)

The Pine Ridge Reservation, designated in 1889, is a small Indian reservation located in South Dakota with a population of 19,779 as of 2017. It is 3,469 square miles and comprises nine districts situated on 2.8 million acres. Since its establishment, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has been considered a ‘dry reservation’––meaning the sale of alcohol is prohibited. Despite this limitation, two-thirds of the adults live with alcoholism, and one in four children are born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Yet, despite these problems, Indigenous people believe that their way of life is worth preserving. There are those that want to stand up and protect their people.


The Tokala society (Men’s Warrior Society), and the Katala Society (Women’s Warrior Society), were a group of warriors that fought to protect the people against any and all threats. Even though the Lakota people no longer use these societies today, we still have young men and women warriors who take on roles that are similar to those of the societies. To protect our people from the spread of COVID-19, we have lockdowns at the reservation borders to stop outsiders from coming in. In addition, a protective tradition that is still utilized today is the medicinal herbs combined into teas that help combat illnesses. We believe that three different teas build immunity to COVID-19: sage tea, cedar tea, and bear root tea.


Despite the contrasting cultural teachings, some choose to self medicate with drugs and alcohol. Even though the reservation has been in quarantine, there is still rampant alcohol and drug use as tribal members go off the reservation through backroads. These individuals are then spreading COVID-19 by not adhering to safety guidelines, meaning lockdowns and reservation-wide curfews are futile efforts. The Oglala Lakota Sioux COVID-19 infections are still rising today despite the efforts of the tribe to mitigate the spread.


Most reservations are far away from bigger towns and cities where food and gas prices are low. With the reservation lockdowns happening intermittently, tribal members have no choice but to spend their money at the reservation stores with doubled prices. This means less food on the table for our families. The Pine Ridge Reservation is located in Oglala Lakota County, one of the nation’s poorest counties; most tribal members depend on government assistance, so having to pay extra for groceries during the pandemic is another strain on top of many families' lives.


Although COVID-19 has presented us with a lot of disadvantages, it has brought the people on the reservation closer. Seeing the younger generation fight and take care of the people gave us high hopes for our future because we know that with their fighting spirit, future generations of Indigenous people will continue on.