When Covid-19 came to their community, these Choctaw members came together to feed and protect families

When news of the Covid-19 epidemic broke out, Brian Mask, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, quickly recognized the danger to his nation.

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"I knew it was going to be bad because we, the Nation, look at history, our immune system is not built for many things," said Mask, who lives in the Pearl River Reservation near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

The coronavirus spread to its population last spring, along with a wave of confusion and fear. Death has ascended to summer; the nation lost 33 members in June alone.

Mask's friend and member of the tribe Marsha Berry also lives in the area, where many families live in different homes. He told CNN that at the beginning of the epidemic, as residents had to wait about a week to get their test results, many unknowingly distributed Covid-19 to parents and grandparents before learning they were HIV-positive.

"We didn't have a guide, any kind of Instruction on what to do. So, we were left out to take care of ourselves," Berry said.

Those diagnosed with the disease were generally not ready to be detained for 14 days, without adequate food, clothing or a home support system.

Mask's boyfriend, Sandy Steve, discussed the case of a mother of three in their Covid-19 community. Her seven-year-old daughter had to wake her up regularly to make sure she was still alive.

"The first thing I thought of," said Mask, "(this) will affect that child for the rest of his life."

The story angered Mask, but also motivated him to take action. He logged on to Facebook and "said some things I shouldn't have said," but that's when he also contacted Berry, Steve, and another acquaintance of Rian Willis to help.

They decided to collect donated food and hygiene products for what should have been a one-day trip last June, providing the families with coronavirus with much-needed supplies. They found a former Dollar General site to collect the items, and Berry announced a live video donation campaign on Facebook.

The public response was astounding. The group received far more donations than they were able to make in one afternoon.

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Unable to install extra items in their homes, they turned the former Dollar General store into a temporary headquarters for their efforts, which they dubbed "Respect for the Choctaw Spirit."

Donations were made in the summer when the virus spread to many families. While the Choctaw Health Center was the first stop for many members of the nation, helicopters rushed sick Covid-19 patients to a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi - about 80 miles away.

Mask said he would hear people flying overhead on his roof every night. Berry recalled the ever-present mood swings.

"I remember sitting here many times and just ... putting my hands in my ears so I wouldn't hear the helicopters, because the helicopters came three or four times a day to pick up another member of the tribe," he said. "Most of them never came home."

Mask lost family members to the epidemic, including his cousin who was three months younger than him; they shared sleeping together and grew up together.

"She was fine ... and a week later, she's in the hospital too. It's just a breeze ... she's talking to someone one day and the next day they're gone."

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is claiming 11,000 members. As of March 18, they have lost 113 members.

The loss of national culture is staggering. Mask says they have lost the wife of a former chief, narrator, traditional dancer, and stickball player, whom he describes as a game of lacrosse.

"We were always in a state of grief," Berry said. "Faced with death every day, we almost lost hope. Our funeral customs were taken from us because we could not get together. We could not cry."

The group kept the donation donations running every Saturday in the summer. Eventually, as the number of new cases began to decline, Mask and other members of the tribe returned to their jobs.

Respect for the Spirit of Choctaw then launched its online campaign, creating a Facebook Group to communicate with the families that are being raised and allowing them to ask for specific donations. After working all night as a pit manager at Pearl River Resort, Mask was returning home for a few hours of sleep before driving the delivery to those in need.

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These days, donation requests are widely circulated verbally or via Facebook, Mask said. He is also campaigning to fill the Easter baskets for the children of the nation who lost loved ones in the epidemic.

Mask admits that some members of the tribe are reluctant to get Covid-19 vaccine. He admits that he was nervous, but because of the environment in which he worked, he was glad to find you. Seeing casino sponsors refuse to wear a mask bothers him, he says, and carries a message for them: "Even if you want to die, I have a responsibility to these people out here."

Despite all the losses, Mask and Berry said they saw a silver lining in the tragedy: their drive involved members of the tribe to help each other while reconnecting with old friends and building relationships.

Mask, who makes deliveries to those affected by Covid-19, also experienced a sense of personal satisfaction in the project.

"I did not raise a perfect man on earth or anything, but I slept every night with a smile on my face knowing I was going to heaven. That sounds silly, but it has become my mind now."