A Voice for Tribal Nations

May 25, 2021 | Blog, Health


NHBP Tribal Member Robyn Burlingham was recently appointed by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the Protect Michigan Commission. As part of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the commission will help raise awareness of the safety and effectiveness of the approved COVID-19 vaccines, educate the people of Michigan, and help protect the health and safety of all Michigan residents.

When tensions are high and some populations are reluctant to trust the government, especially given the history between the United States government and Indigenous population, there are some reservations about getting the vaccine in the Indigenous community.

“I know there is a lot of hesitancy from Native populations and I understand that,” Burlingham said. “I know with our historical trauma we have endured as Native peoples, we are reluctant to believe that the federal government has our best interest at heart all the time.”

While educating Michiganders on the safety of the FDA-approved vaccines, the commission will work to break down some of these barriers between the non-white population and the federal government.

“Historical trauma is a really difficult thing to overcome,” Burlingham said. “We trusted the federal government once and we got burned – bad. I am hoping that by gathering the facts about the vaccine and sharing them with the commission, we can start to move past that and heal as Indigenous Nations.”

Creating the vaccine in a short time period – almost historic speed – could be why there is resistance to trust the vaccine. However, the quick approval of the vaccine was the result of speeding up the U.S. government’s regulatory process, not by cutting corners on safety. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, the COVID-19 vaccine still had to go through clinical trials, just as every other vaccine, to ensure its safety.

“There was a fast track to this vaccine, but there was a necessity to fast track this to try and get it in place to save lives,” Burlingham said. “It did come out, relatively speaking, very quickly. But the necessity was there, worldwide. Globally, we needed it.”

Another unique aspect of this commission is to bring together various individuals across the state of Michigan, who come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and careers, to collectively share out information with their peers. By each individual sharing information with those around them, the hope is that people will begin to trust the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“While COVID-19 wasn’t aimed at one group of individuals, we do know that paired with the lack of access to quality health care in African American and Native communities, we’ve been hit harder,” Burlingham said. “The fact is, it hit everybody. But with little to no access to health care, or so many preexisting health issues because of the lack of health care for decades, we have been hit harder than other communities.”

Throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic, Natives and other minority groups across the state have had the virus at higher rates and experienced higher mortality rates. A personal goal for Burlingham is to help educate and shine the light on the treatment of minority groups across the state, in hopes to improve their treatment in the future. Burlingham also hopes this commission will allow her to share information and dispel some of the myths related to the COVID-19 virus and vaccinations, so that people can make a better, well-informed decision for themselves.

“NHBP is honored that our very own Tribal Member, Robyn Burlingham, was selected to represent and provide Native Nations a voice in Michigan,” Tribal Council Vice Chairperson Dorie Rios said. “We are grateful and blessed to have a Tribal Member committed to not only helping the Indigenous population, but all populations in Michigan Mno Bmadzewen {live a better life}.”

Along with her appointment to this state commission, Burlingham currently also serves on the NHBP Culture and Housing Committee.

“I can’t and won’t tell people what to believe, but we can just share the facts that we know, and hope each individual makes the best decision for themselves and their families,” Burlingham said. “We will never know the lives that are saved through the vaccinations, but we can certainly try to minimize the lives that we are losing and have lost.”


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