GREAT FALLS — Between March of 2020 and January of 2021, during what Benefis Health System describes as the first wave of the COVID pandemic, Benefis System took in more than 240 Native American patients and more than 40 of those people lost their lives to the virus.
Benefis recognized those lives lost with black ribbons on an empty teepee outside of the North Tower as part of recognizing Indigenous People’s Day on Monday, October 11, 2021.
They also had colored ribbons to recognize the patients that survived and to recognize the healing process for the families.
According to the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services, out of all the cases in the state, there have been more than 10,000 people that are American Indian/Alaska Natives. 297 of those people have died from Covid, which represents about 15% of the state’s deaths.
Benefis wanted to ensure the patients and their families had recognition to show support to them and Indigenous workers at the hospital as well, who are grateful to Benefis for supporting and recognizing them on a day that is very important to them.
Ranae Fisher works in the Native American Welcoming Center and is an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree tribe.
“I think it’s really cool of Benefis to recognize and commemorate the Native Americans that not only got sick with Covid, but that also lost their lives. This place is the only one of its kind in Montana to me. The Native community was hit hard with Covid. It is great to work for a place that recognizes and accommodates that and wants to commemorate that. I think that’s wonderful,” Fisher said.
Barbara Middle Rider is a patient advocate and a member of the Little Shell Tribe, and says her managers at the Welcoming Center at Benefis played a big role in setting the teepee up and accommodating patients, and said she was overwhelmed with emotion when she saw it for the first time.
“It overwhelmed me knowing that I see this every day, I see the loss, I hear about the loss, I deal with the families that have lost. The family is very important and Benefis helps take care of them. Sometimes there’s ten people in a room and Benefis lets those people be in the room because that that is their medicine to help them,” Middle Rider said.
Indigenous People’s Day celebrates and recognizes the groups of indigenous communities who have lived in North America for thousands of years. Last week, President Biden became the first U.S. president to formally recognize the day.
Indigenous People’s Day is not yet a federally recognized holiday, but a bill in Congress is working to change that. Indigenous People’s Day continues to gain recognition in the state and across the country.