PHILADELPHIA, Miss.— When Sharon Taylor died of coronavirus, her family — standing apart, wearing masks — sang her favorite hymns at her graveside, next to a tiny headstone for her stillborn daughter, buried 26 years ago.
Fresh flowers marked row after row of new graves. Holy Rosary is one of the few cemeteries in this Choctaw Indian family's community, and it's running out of space — a sign of the virus's massive toll on the Choctaw people.
As confirmed coronavirus cases skyrocket in Mississippi, the state's only federally recognized American Indian tribe has been devastated. COVID-19 has ripped through Choctaw families, many of whom live together in multigenerational homes.
Almost 10 percent of the tribe's roughly 11,000 members have tested positive for the virus. More than 75 have died. While Native Americans are less than 1 percent of Mississippi's population, they have suffered 4.5 percent of the coronavirus deaths statewide, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of cases as of July 20.
The once-flourishing Choctaw economy is stagnant, as the tribal government put in place tighter restrictions than those the state imposed.
July brought a glimmer of hope, with some coronavirus infection numbers dropping among Choctaws, but health officials worry that with cases rising elsewhere in the state, the reprieve is temporary. On July 31, Mississippi recorded its highest single-day coronavirus-related fatality count: 52; Tuesday saw 51 deaths.
Health care worker gets COVID-19
As a community health technician, Taylor, 53, took the virus seriously from the start. She answered calls from tribe members with symptoms and delivered medicine. In June she herself fell ill.
Kristina Taylor, 18, one of Sharon Taylor's five children, learned just before her mother was admitted to the hospital that she had been named valedictorian of the tribal high school. Her mom had predicted the accomplishment for years. In some of their last moments together, Kristina showed her mom the speech she had prepared for graduation and the Choctaw beadwork her sister used to decorate her cap.
"We were just in tears. Usually, if I started crying, she started crying, too,” Kristina Taylor said. “She always had that faith in me, that I could do it, even when I doubted myself. She knew I could do it before I did."
That day, Sharon Taylor took her daughter to the family plot at Holy Rosary. It was always special: a place to mark important events, to be together, to visit the grave of baby Kerri. Other relatives are buried there, too, and it's where Sharon Taylor wanted her final resting place.
But the Rev. Bob Goodyear says the cemetery doesn't have much more room to expand, in part because of another pandemic. The Spanish flu of 1918 took lives so quickly that residents didn't have time to put up markers, and 400 victims are buried in an open field on cemetery grounds.
"I pray it doesn't come to that this time,” said Goodyear, whose Catholic church has always buried Choctaws, regardless of faith. The tribe recently voted to establish a community cemetery nearby, which will ease the burden. Goodyear isn't a Choctaw but has ministered in the reservation community for decades.
High poverty, ailments intertwined
As in other Native American communities, coronavirus deaths among the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians have been driven by underlying conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure that are present in more than 4 of 5 deadly Mississippi cases, said Thomas Dobbs, M.D., Mississippi's state health officer.
Native Americans hit hard
American Indians in eight states have seen higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths than the general population.
• New Mexico: 36.3 percent of cases, 8.8 percent of the population; deaths not available
• Wyoming: 17.8 percent of cases, 42.3 percent of deaths, 2.3 percent of the population
• South Dakota: 15.9 percent of cases, 8.6 percent of the population; deaths not available
• Montana: 11.1 percent of cases, 23.4 percent of deaths, 6 percent of the population
• Arizona: 5.6 percent of cases, 12 percent of deaths, 3.9 percent of the population
• Oregon: 2.4 percent of cases, 1.9 percent of deaths, 1.1 percent of the population
• Utah: 2.2 percent of cases, 8.7 percent of deaths, less than 1 percent of the population
• Mississippi: 2 percent of cases, 4.5 percent of deaths, less than 1 percent of the population
• Alaska: where natives are 15.9 percent of residents, have 12.6 percent of cases but 33.3 percent of deaths
Note: 17 states do not report American Indian/Alaska Native racial data.
Source: Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of data as of July 2020
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."