Vaccine rollout is underway for frontline health care workers at the Fort Yates hospital, but starting next week priority will be for those who speak the Dakota and Lakota languages.

Chairman Mike Faith says it’s about keeping customs alive.

“It’s something we have to pass on to our loved ones, our history, our culture our language. We don’t have it in black and white, we tell stories. That’s why it’s so important,” Faith said.

That’s why those who perform ceremonies and speak the native languages of Dakota or Lakota are high on the list for getting the vaccine just after health care workers. Faith says roughly 300 people out of the nearly 8,000 who are part of the tribe at Fort Yates are fluent in the language.

“Middle-aged and the old ones getting to talk together in ‘L’ or ‘D’. That’s showing that our customs are not going to go away,” Faith said.

In addition to those who can carry on the culture, the next phase includes elders, law enforcement, tribal courts and the school system. So far, 170 have been vaccinated as part of the plan, headed up by Tribal Health Director Margaret Gates.

“We met with tribal council and added in 65 and older and fluent speakers to be sort of first in line because usually they’ll be in C, but we bumped them up because they are the most important asset to our tribe and people because of the language,” Gates said.

Emergency Manager Elliott Ward says he knows the tribe will get through the challenges COVID brings.

“Our people have gone through these things before, Spanish flu, famine. We’ve always come through it and survived, so we’ll survive this,” Ward said.

Gates says the vaccine has lifted spirits at Indian Health Services.

“It’s a little different feel at IHS, not so somber. There was laughter, smiles, it’s relieving for the health care workers,” Gates said.

Gates says the tribe expects to get another 300 doses or so of the Moderna vaccine within the next few days.