The scene is the pedestrian bridge over U.S. Highway 93 in Pablo. In the midst of a gaggle of dancing children, a young hip-hop artist raps out a serious message:
"I pull my mask up to my face so I know that I’m straight.... I wash my hands in the sink, I ain’t taking no risk,” sings KiidTruth, in the video for his new song, "C19” – the first effort in a campaign against COVID-19 waged by Native American tribes in Montana.
To shield their vulnerable elders from the coronavirus pandemic, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are enlisting musicians to tell tribal youth to wash their hands and wear masks.
The song by 25-year-old KiidTruth – also known as Artie Mendoza III – garnered more than 1,500 views on YouTube in the four days after it was posted.
The music campaign "is an excellent way to reach younger people,” said 15-year-old Alishon Kelly, who lives on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. "I’ve seen a lot of my peers posting it and watching it.”
On the reservation, which has a population of slightly under 30,000, the stakes are high. If the virus spreads to the community’s elders – who are at a greater risk of developing life-threatening symptoms – the local language and customs could be in peril.
"When it comes to our elders, we’re always around them, we’re always with them,” said Mendoza, who grew up on the reservation. "They’re a sidewalk away.”
Tribal Councilwoman Charmel Gillin said: "Tribal communities are very unique in many ways, but one of the ways is that we are a people with a spoken language, oral histories, and all of those aspects of our heritage are really in need of preservation. The elders in the community carry those for us.”
The reservation has not seen a significant number of COVID-19 cases. The tribes announced last week that four Flathead Reservation residents were diagnosed with COVID-19. The area has seen a total of nine cases since the onset of the pandemic, and no deaths.
But as Mendoza sings, "My fellow Navajos been dealing with the sickness.” Leaders on the Flathead Reservation watched with concern as the Navajo Nation’s caseload mounted in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, where more than 6,000 COVID-19 cases have led to more than 300 deaths.
"We have been realizing the potential for great loss and that really puts us in a higher gear in trying to figure out what to do,” Gillin said. "We have a little bit of an advantage in being in this remote rural area in Montana so we can observe what’s happening around us. We need to use that to our benefit.”
According to Michelle Mitchell, head of the tribes’ education department, the campaign will expand to feature numerous local artists in coming weeks. Local youth who create their own videos will compete for $100 gift cards.
"Our guiding work is for the youth here on the reservation, but that doesn’t mean our kids over here can’t challenge the kids from Blackfeet,” Mitchell said. "They could launch these challenges themselves and take it in to other Indian communities. That would be pretty cool.”