YAKAMA RESERVATION — The little girl stands on Toppenish Ridge, high above the Yakima Valley, before the camera pans closer to show her at a wooden cross marking the gravesite of her grandmother, who died of COVID-19.
That emotional scene near the end of Valient Clark’s short film, “Kuthla,” was created for dramatic purpose. Seeing the 6-year-old actress — his daughter, Alaira Mae Clark — wearing a mask near a fictional burial site is a heart-wrenching plea for the importance of face coverings as more Yakama Nation citizens are becoming infected and dying in the pandemic.
“This is what happens. This is what’s real. You lose your loved ones,” Clark said.
Clark made the film for the Yakama Nation COVID Relief Project. Kuthla means grandmother in Ichiskíin, also known as Sahaptin, the language spoken by the Yakama people in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Along with younger members of the tribal community who have become ill and have died, the disease has killed several highly respected elders, an incalculable loss.
The film ends with the words, “COVID-19 has changed our way of life. Let’s protect our elders and our children. I wear a mask to protect you, please wear a mask to protect me.”
Since Clark posted it July 14 on the Yakama Nation Homeland Security Facebook page, which the tribe is using to provide COVID-19 information, “Kuthla” has been shared more than 700 times and has dozens of comments.
“Thank you from an elder, Siletz Tribe, Oregon,” one woman commented. Others said they would share it with their tribes. Some said they cried.
The day after the video went up on the Facebook page, Yakama Nation officials issued a public safety order requiring masks “in any indoor public setting or outdoor public setting where at least 6 feet of social distancing cannot be observed at all times.”
On Friday, Tribal Council Chairman Delano Saluskin provided coronavirus numbers from Indian Health Services in Toppenish. As of Wednesday, there were 683 cases.
“With 11,000 members, that means 6% of our members that we know of have been infected with the virus,” Saluskin said. “We’ve also suffered 28 deaths on the reservation as reported by the Yakama Service Unit and we all grieve those losses.
“This has been devastating for many families on the reservation and it means that every week, a family member is impacted. When we look at last year during this same time, we did not have these death numbers on the reservation.”
Clark is contracted to the Yakama Nation COVID Relief Project and has made several videos in that role. The 38-year-old works full-time as compliance officer for Legends Casino. He’s not part of its marketing department but has created promotional and training videos for the casino, which caught the eye of tribal leaders.
“The chairman reached out to me because he wanted to address the people, but we wanted to do in a professional way, since we are one of the bigger tribes in the Northwest,” said Clark, who lives in Toppenish.
He owns a fireworks stand and started making funny videos years ago to promote it. A casino official saw potential in those videos and asked Clark to start shooting videos for Legends about six years ago. Clark used his iPhone before investing in more specialized equipment and studying to learn more.
“Now all my money goes to video stuff. It kind of surpassed” being a hobby, he said.
Clark has made music videos and promotional videos for Yakamart, a haunted house in Forks and rodeos. After an early rodeo video went viral, Clark landed contracts for the Yakama Treaty Days and Delbert Wheeler Sr. Memorial Tour rodeos. He’s also shot videos of powwows and drummers, singers and dancers, and set up a YouTube channel called Valient Productions.
His first short film featuring his daughter — and Clark — was in 2016, ”Choosh (Water)”. Son Cadence Clark, who is 12 now, shot it with an iPhone 6. Valient Clark brings his older son, Valient Clark Jr., 17, on many projects.
“Choosh (Water)” was an entry in the 33rd annual Olympia Film Festival in Olympia. More recently, ”How Much Do You Make An Hour?”, also starring Alaira and her dad, was honored at the One Heart Native Arts and Film Festival in Spokane and the Summer Jam Film Festival in Warm Springs, Ore.
“That was her big debut of acting. She did have a little more experience when we went into this one,” Clark said. “She knew better how to follow along with me. She understood what we were doing.”
‘A kid’s perspective’
When Clark was contracted to the Yakama Nation COVID Relief Project, he wanted to create a short film with an important message that would draw people to the Yakama Nation Homeland Security page.
“We need to open their eyes. We need to tug at their hearts,” he said. “Simplify everything down to a kid’s perspective. That’s the way I pitched this idea to my chairman and everybody. They were for it.”
Though it’s a few hours of filming edited down to just over 4 minutes long, preparations took longer. Clark asked a friend with a fairly new home if he could shoot there, and Katrina Wheeler gave permission to use Wheeler’s Kountry Korner in Wapato.
“The process of finding the person to play the kuthla, the grandma, it took a while. I asked a few people and they shied away” because the character died, Clark said. He asked his auntie, Zelda Winnier, who agreed. Winnier is a language specialist and teaches Yakama traditions at the Yakama Nation Tribal School, he added.
“She was all for getting the message out,” Clark said.
He started filming about three weeks ago, shooting all the scenes at the house and store in one weekend. The last location, on Toppenish Ridge to the left of U.S. Highway 97 heading south to Goldendale, came after a few cemetery options fell through.
A post on Facebook seeking a cross prompted a response from Rick Dominguez, who makes wooden crosses for tribal citizens. Dominguez made and donated a cross for the powerful final scene in which Alaira appears with her mom, Mariah Schuster.
He is proud of “Kuthla” and the video has received great feedback, Clark said.
“It really touched everybody,” he said.
The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation reported Wednesday that 683 people have tested positive for COVID-19 through Indian Health Services.
That’s a jump of 25 new cases from Friday, and more than 100 new cases since July 3.
The numbers reflect testing for those who are eligible for Indian Health Services and are not a comprehensive indicator of the virus’ impact on Indian Country.
But given the Nation’s approximate 11,000 members, the case counts also mean at least 6% of tribal members have been impacted.
Seven people are hospitalized, with three on ventilators. Twenty-eight people have died, an increase of nine people since last Friday, as reported by the Yakama Service Unit of Indian Health Services in Toppenish.
“Our greatest sadness at this time comes from the 28 deaths caused in our community,” Tribal Chairman Delano Saluskin said Wednesday.
The Yakama Nation’s cultural values, traditions and ceremonies typically bring the community together around a family suffering a loss. But the Nation has decided to postpone such gatherings.
“We know at this time that gatherings will increase the spread of the virus and only result in more loss,” Saluskin said.
The Yakama Nation spans almost 2,200 square miles, including about 31 square miles of which is owned by non-Native private landowners.
The agricultural location and the “checkerboard” of ownership have created unique challenges for the Nation’s response to COVID-19. Although the Nation’s March “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order remains in effect, many of the Nation’s residents are essential workers. And the land ownership pattern can complicate enforcement.
Despite directives to avoid gatherings, a rodeo with more than 10 people present took place last week, Saluskin said.
The Nation has been mailing newsletters with COVID-related news to all members, hosting weekly food distributions, and coordinating ways to reach members who can’t drive to those sites with food, hygiene products, and over-the-counter medications.
But the Nation hasn’t had to face the pandemic alone. The COVID team thanked Washington State Emergency Operations and Yakima County Emergency Management for supplies and the Washington National Guard for operating testing sites open to the public.
The Yakama Nation Homeland Security Facebook page keeps community members in the loop about testing sites.
The tribe’s leadership also emphasizes the importance of wearing masks in public, social distancing and hand washing to help slow the spread. The Nation is in particular need of children’s masks, which have been the most difficult to find.
“We know these simple practices work, and we each need to embrace them as part of our daily routine to protect each other,” Saluskin said.
A full return to school buildings is likely off the table until a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available, according to Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, which provides support to regional districts.
The exception might be schools with very small student populations, he said by phone Wednesday, pointing to Klickitat County’s Bickleton School District — a P-12 district with 124 students enrolled in the 2019-20 school year, according to state data.
By comparison, Yakima County’s smallest district is Union Gap, a K-8 school with 663 students.
During a Yakima Health District news briefing earlier in the day, Chase outlined three possible models that districts are preparing for school this fall. A full return to campus is not one of them.
Local districts have said they expect guidance from the local health district by the first week of August on what approach to starting school will be approved.
Some school districts in Western Washington have begun to announce school will start remotely — in some cases backtracking on previous plans to resume in-person learning. Seattle, Bellevue, Northshore, Highline, Renton, Federal Way, Auburn and Kent have all announced the decision.
The decision for Seattle Public Schools came after a recent report by the Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue about community transmission. Researchers said community activity in the Seattle area was too high for schools to reopen safely, and more effort was needed to stop the spread of the virus. The researchers said the connection between school safety and community activity can be applied to other communities.
Chase said it was a “very distinct possibility” that as more schools stick with remote learning, the state may mandate that all districts start school remotely in the fall.
Chase noted some differences between Central Washington public schools and those along the I-5 corridor — local districts may be more rural and smaller. But he also said many of the issues schools are struggling to overcome in reopening are similar statewide. These include teaching, feeding and busing students safely.
He noted that nationally — and in Yakima County specifically — there is a shortage of bus drivers. Many of the existing bus driver workforce is retirement age, putting them in a group considered among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Chase said this means schools likely would struggle to staff enough buses to transport students to school if buildings reopened, let alone find a way to keep students distanced and safe on the buses. It’s one of several issues schools statewide are grappling with, he said.
Chase said schools are likely to prioritize face-to-face learning opportunities for high-risk students nonetheless. This might include those with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness or those in foster care.
“Districts recognize some of those kids have been disenfranchised (during remote schooling) and are going to do what they can to make that up,” he said.
Asked if there were plans to provide care and oversight for children of essential workers, for example, who can’t stay home with students in case of remote learning, Chase said there was no clear solution. He pointed to child care programs that have remained open in spite of the pandemic as a possible support for these families, but conceded the child care industry is also struggling.
“I don’t have the magic bullet for daycare,” he said. “It’s definitely a Catch 22: Until we can get kids out of the home into school or daycare, how can we get parents back to work? It’s a conundrum.”
Nationwide, child care centers have closed amid the pandemic, with many programs expected to shut permanently. In Yakima County, where there was a shortage of child care openings prior to COVID-19, 56 child care programs had closed since mid-March due to the virus, according to data from Child Care Aware of Washington updated last week. Some remaining providers had open spots while children remain at home with their parents. There were 1,209 vacancies at existing programs last week.
Chase said districts are working hard to find solutions that meet all students’ needs, but that amid a pandemic there is no flawless approach.
“We’re not going to be perfect, but we’re going to do better,” he said.
The Yakima Health District reported 62 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, and reminded people to stick with precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Health district spokesperson Lillian Bravo said it’s important to stay vigilant even when venturing out in extreme heat, which can make it more uncomfortable to wear a mask. She advised anyone struggling to seek shade and stay away from others when needed, but to keep the mask on when socially distancing becomes impossible.
“I want to celebrate again the fact that we’re not getting close to 200 cases a day like we were just a few weeks ago,” Bravo said. “But we also need to remember in the context, we’re still in a precarious situation.”
Bravo noted that to qualify for Phase 2, the county would need to see 63 or fewer new cases over a two-week period. The state’s criteria is 25 cases per 100,000 people over two weeks. Yakima County’s population is 250,000.
The total number of cases since mid-March reached 9,755 on Wednesday.
The death toll was 182, with two additional deaths. Hospitalizations are at 30 people and three are intubated.
The district’s website said an error in its formula put out an inaccurate number of recovered patients on Tuesday, so that total fell to 6,756.
Bravo said the health department has received some requests to keep the red and black flags put out at Chesterley Park, where they were placed to represent people diagnosed with disease in Yakima County. The flags were originally scheduled to be taken down Thursday afternoon.
Kittitas County reported another COVID-19 death at a long-term care facility on Wednesday, bringing the total to five.
The health district said the deaths are more than numbers on a data dashboard.
“We also realize the stress and emotional turmoil this outbreak is creating for families who have lost loved ones, families who are worried about losing their loved ones, employees and their family members, along with our community at large,” the health district said in a statement.