BABB, Mont. – On a cloudy spring day, hundreds lined up in their cars on the Canadian side of the border crossing that separates Alberta and Montana. They had driven for hours and camped out in their vehicles in hopes of receiving the season’s hottest commodity — a COVID-19 vaccine — from a Native American tribe that was giving out its excess doses.
The Blackfeet tribe in northern Montana provided about 1,000 surplus vaccines last month to its First Nations relatives and others from across the border, in an illustration of the disparity in speed at which the United States and Canada are distributing doses. While more than 30% of adults in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, in Canada that figure is about 3%.
Among those who received the vaccine at the Piegan-Carway border crossing were Sherry Cross Child and Shane Little Bear, of Stand Off, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of the border.
They recited a prayer in the Blackfoot language before nurses began administering shots, with Chief Mountain — sacred to the Blackfoot people — rising in the distance. The prayer was dedicated to people seeking refuge from the virus, Cross Child said.
Cross Child and her husband have family and friends in Montana but have not been able to visit them since the border closed last spring to all but essential travel.
“It’s been stressful because we had some deaths in the family, and they couldn’t come,” she said. “Just for the support – they rely on us, and we rely on them. It’s been tough.”
More than 95% of the Blackfeet reservation's roughly 10,000 residents who are eligible for the vaccine are fully immunized, after the state prioritized Native American communities — among the most vulnerable U.S. populations — in the early stages of its vaccination campaign.
The tribe received vaccine allotments both from the Montana health department and the federal Indian Health Service, leaving some doses unused. With an expiration date fast approaching, it turned to other nations in the Blackfoot Confederacy, which includes the Blackfeet and three tribes in southern Alberta that share a language and culture.