That’s something that holds true across the country, where American Indians and Alaska Natives are hospitalized for COVID-19 complications at more than five times the rate of non-Hispanic whites, according to data through July 25 from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reservation hospital where Taylor worked can’t handle patients with severe coronavirus cases; they’re sent to facilities elsewhere in the state. Taylor died June 22 in Jackson, about 80 miles from home.

In Neshoba County, named for the Choctaw word for wolf, more than a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. It’s a rural area, characterized by dusty red clay and rolling pine-filled hills.

The Golden Moon Casino on state Highway 16 serves as a welcome to Choctaw land. From there, the reservation spreads out over almost 55 square miles.

Choctaw Indians used to live across millions of acres in southeastern Mississippi but were forced off the land. Under an 1830 treaty, the Choctaws were to move to Oklahoma. Those who remained in Mississippi endured segregation, racism and poverty.

In the 1990s the Choctaws started building what became a strong tribal economy. They own a family-style resort with a water park and two casinos. The tribe is a leading employer in eastern Mississippi, but the tribal government has been more conservative in reopening efforts during the pandemic than Mississippi state officials.

The tribe has long been a target of hate, and the coronavirus has only made things worse, members say. On social media, people blame Choctaws for high case numbers. Choctaw employees have been harassed at their jobs; others are called names in stores.

“We’ve heard so many bad things about ourselves and our people. The first thing people turn to is blame and hate,” says Marsha Berry, a tribe member who helped form a group that delivers food and other necessities to people who aren’t leaving home.

Grief is cut short

Anita Johnson lives near the funeral home that has handled arrangements for all the Choctaws lost to the virus. Each time a funeral procession passes her house, her family stop what they’re doing to pray.

“It seemed like in Choctaw families,” she says, “that’s all that was in front of us: You’re going to get sick, you’re going to get the fever, you’re going to end up going to the hospital, and you’re going to die.”

When Sharon Taylor died, her family couldn’t grieve as Choctaws normally would. Because of the chief’s ban, no bonfire marked the occasion, no wake with people dropping by for days to pay respects and drop off meals.

Instead, at her graveside, her family shared stories of the woman who valued their tight-knit family and community above all else, who never missed a gathering and always had a grandchild on her lap. They sang the hymns she loved, the ones she’d sung to her kids and then to her grandkids.

Her 25-year-old daughter, Kristi Wishork, is pregnant, and she would like to name her baby girl for her mother.

“She was always looking out for other people,” Kristina Taylor said. “Now, she’s watching over us.”

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