When Activities Coordinator Silver Little Eagle, 23, first put a call out on the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s Elderly Program Facebook page for pen pal participants, she didn’t know what to expect. Then letters started pouring in.
“When they first got their letters they were kind of surprised that they got that much attention,” said Little Eagle. “They were thinking they were about to get a few letters or so. But each person got around 40 letters in the first batch of mail.”
And that was just the first round.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, as community after community went into lockdown, social media played a big role in keeping people connected, through apps like Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and new efforts like the Social Distance Powwow Facebook group. But innovative cyber hangouts often left elders and Indigenous communities without internet access behind. Six months into the pandemic, Little Eagle decided she needed a way to engage the Northern Cheyenne elders, who were also largely cut off from visitors for their own safety.
Typically, the program’s Facebook page is focused on local outreach around the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s reservation of roughly five thousand people and the surrounding community of Lame Deer, Montana. Little Eagle thought they’d mostly get replies from people who utilized the Elderly Program who lived off site, as dining hall meals and social activities had all been cancelled for several months by then.
“We were just trying to keep our elders social while we’re in this social distancing area,” Little Eagle said. “So, we decided to do the pen pal program with residents of the Shoulderblade Complex, which is an independent living facility.”
The request for letters included the Northern Cheyenne Elderly Program’s mailing address and images of the ten Shoulderblade Complex residents, along with their names and their interests, like “Fred, interested in Bingo,” and “Adeline, interested in language preservation and revitalization.”
In the months since, every two weeks, each elder has received upwards of 40 letters from places as far away as Germany and Ireland.
“We have a lot from Canada, and a lot of the Canada ones are from other Indigenous communities,” Little Eagle said. “And a lot of them send stamps with them. It’s pretty crazy. We’re gonna get a map where we’re going to pin down where each letter came from.”
What started as a way to keep social connections for isolated elders quickly grew into a global community. Four days after the pen pal program launched, popular social justice activist collective, Seeding Sovereignty, reposted the Elderly Program’s Facebook post on it’s Instagram page which has 230,000 followers. It received 46,886 likes.
“It kind of surprised us when we saw it on Instagram,” Little Eagle said. “A lot of people began sending things that were needed for COVID-19, like boxes and boxes of sanitizer or things on our Amazon wishlist.”
The extra supplies came just as COVID-19 cases began to surge in their area.
“The past month we had, I think, 200-something cases on the rez, which is pretty small. But our rez is also pretty small, so there’s a large percentage,” Little Eagle said.
In the beginning of the pandemic, the Elderly Program began doing curbside meal pick-up for elders. Later into the summer, as COVID-19 cases rose, they switched to doorstep delivery. They apply the same level of caution with the letters pouring in.
“We distribute every two weeks,” Little Eagle said. “We usually sort them first and use the PPE…and then we place them in Ziploc bags to quarantine them, because we saw online that (the coronavirus) stays on paper for a day, or 24 hours, so that’s why we quarantine our mail, and then hand them to the residents in Ziploc bags.”
It’s a lot of work for the nine staff members to keep up with, Little Eagle said, as the mail piles in, they also have to keep up with their other programs.
“It’s been hard to fit it into our daily schedule with everything else we do here,” said Little Eagle. “We have a feeding program, which feeds about 180 elders a day, and we deliver those meals to door steps. We also have a distribution program for PPE, and a food box/grocery run.”
But Little Eagle is quick to add that the payoff of the program is invaluable for them, elder residents, and communities beyond.
“We’ve been in contact with the Oglala Lakota Elderly Program, and we don’t know how yet, but we’re planning to set up a program with our outside elders, so the ones that utilize our feeding program and the elders that utilize their feeding program,” she said.
Right now the Elderly Program is getting a flier out to poll the elders that use their program to see if they’re interested in participating.
“I think this really just opened our eyes on how to address different levels of health, besides our feeding program,” Little Eagle said. “We have to make sure their mental health is okay and their physical and emotional health, and that just comes with checking in with them, and making sure that they’re happy, and that’s just the biggest part in this COVID-19, is being sure they are happy and their well-being is okay.”
Little Eagle said she looks forward to a time, post pandemic, when elders can start to socialize in person once more.
“I can’t wait until we open again,” she said, “because I was on a roll with activities.”
Meanwhile, letters and donations continue to roll in, as staff post regular updates to their Facebook page. The latest donation made this week was from Indigneous punk band “1876,” donating all the profits from a recent album release “Pow Wow Punk Rock,” for food and household items.