Shemah Crosby remembers her grandmother Lena spending time with her hand crafting Choctaw Indian traditional dresses, sowing elaborate appliques onto colorful fabrics.

When her “pokni,” or grandmother in Choctaw, died of COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic in 2020, the 20-year-old student lost not only a beloved family member but also a wealth of knowledge about her Native American tribe, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

It was a wake-up call for Crosby, who became more involved in her community, learning the tribe’s language as well as ancient practices such as beading and dress-making. She won the Choctaw Indian Princess pageant last summer, making her tribe’s official ambassador for the year.

“I was going to be the one to kind of sit back,” she recalled on a recent afternoon as she stood in front of a large wooden cross erected by the Choctaw tribe on the shores of Lake Pushmataha, a reservoir on the Choctaw reservation in Mississippi, in memory of those who died from the virus.

“But now, because time is of the essence, I feel compelled to take on that role, to be the teacher,” she explained.

As the death toll from COVID-19 in the United States approaches one million, members of the tribe are attempting to cope with the devastation caused by the virus, which slashed through their community, killing scores and leaving few families unaffected. Many Choctaw tribal elders, storytellers, musicians, and artisans perished, as did the keepers of traditions that have shaped the tribe’s history and culture for centuries.

COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on Native Americans, owing in part to the prevalence of chronic disease in their communities and the long history of underfunding of Indian healthcare systems.

According to local health officials, as of early May, 130 Choctaw on the Mississippi reservation had died as a result of the virus, for a per capita death rate of 1,300 out of every 100,000 residents. According to a Reuters analysis of public health data, this is three times the state average. Mississippi has the highest death rate per capita in the country. Experts say that the pandemic has had a disproportionately negative impact on indigenous communities around the world, exposing long-standing inequalities and exacerbating problems such as poverty and access to healthcare.

COVID-19 threatened the very essence of native people by attacking the elderly, who were the guardians of their traditions and languages. Tribes from Latin America to Canada moved to protect their culture keepers as much as possible, barricading villages and prioritizing vaccinations for the elderly. Nonetheless, many died carrying their people’s knowledge with them.

The Mississippi tribe is no stranger to adversity.

The Choctaw tribe was the first of the Indian nations to be driven from ancestral land in the southeast of the United States by the government in the early nineteenth century.

After President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, thousands died of starvation, illness, and exposure to the elements on a 500-mile (805-km) foot journey to what is now Oklahoma.

Lakeishia Wallace, 34, began learning beadwork after leaving the United States military and struggling to find work more than a decade ago. The pandemic taught her the value of sharing skills, such as how to make intricate bead sets and sew ribbon skirts, traditional clothing with colorful strips sewed onto it.

The exact toll of the pandemic may never be known. Some infected people who died were never tested and thus do not appear in the data. Others, while having COVID-19, may have died for another reason, such as a cancer, but were still counted. The CDC estimates that 1.1 million excess deaths have taken place since Feb. 1, 2020, mainly from COVID. Excess mortality is the increase in total number of deaths, from any cause, compared with previous years.