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Toby Joseph worked through his mistrust to get the vaccine. Now he helps others learn to do the same.

“I got it because I was terrified of dying,” said Toby Joseph. 

Joseph is a descendant of Ute and Apache tribes. He works with the Native American community in Pierce County through his organization Consultants for Indian Progress. He partners with Tahoma Indian Center and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to bring COVID-19 vaccine to as many people as possible. 

“I absolutely believe there’s this place where science and spirituality meet,” he said. “There’s a point where I say, ‘OK. I’ve done my praying and looked at the science.’ And as scared as I am, given so many historical slights to Native Americans, me and my family all elected to get the shot.”

Toby Joseph

Finding trust.

Many in tribal communities harbor a deep lack of trust in government and healthcare providers.

“To quote one elder, ‘How do you trust somebody that has created the environment that is genocide?’” Joseph said. “It was fear. Look at what’s happened. The lived experiences, whether it be boarding schools, the Tuskegee experiments, Indians being forcibly sterilized. Look it up.”

Joseph says it is important to acknowledge that history and related fears community members have to make space for discussions about the vaccines.

“What I found really was support from the community once they understood the Health Department facilitated consultations,” he said. “In those conversations, we asked why are so many people of color dying from this disease? I appreciated their honesty. The disparities that we’ve lived in have permeated every level.”

Stepping up early to get vaccinated helped Joseph discuss the vaccines with others as well.

“I was able to say, ‘Hey, community. I did this and here’s why and I think you should as well,’” he said.

Lifting the sky.

Joseph worked with Colette August and the Health Department to bring a clinic to Tahoma Indian Center in early April. Since then, he’s connected dozens more with transportation to get vaccinated.

Toby Joseph“We talked to the community openly,” he said. “We asked what the barriers are. And as we talked about those barriers, we did our best to leverage a 30-year relationship with the Tahoma Indian Center and the community was able to listen because of that.”

He shares his vision of the work:

“There is this word Yahout, and in this story the people learn to lift the sky up,” he said. “Only by understanding the word Yahout—coming together because it’s time to work—can the community lift the sky. That’s what we are doing now with the vaccine.”

Joseph says he knows a lot of people in the community have suffered from COVID-19, including some who died. His daughter got COVID after she was vaccinated, he said. She fought off cancer previously and has a compromised immune system. Joseph said he’s confident the vaccine helped limit the severity of her COVID symptoms.

“I absolutely believe, considering all those who died, that extra layer of protection saved her,” he said.

Blessed with life.

As Joseph watches the community work together to get as many people as possible vaccinated against COVID-19, he offers words that encourage.

“There’s a Twulshootseed word that means someone blessed with life,” he said. “My grandson was also gifted with that name. The name is Skwudaytud. And to be able to leave the house and be blessed with life and acknowledge that once again we’re Skwudaytud? And in a stronger, better way? I don’t know any better way to describe the impact of the vaccine.”

For Joseph the vaccine has given him a path back to hugs with grandkids and visits with others in the community, just like before. With each step closer to normal life, Joseph can’t help but think of the blessings we all have. 

“When people ask me, ‘Why should I get vaccinated?’ or when I stop and think, ‘Why am I delivering this message?’” he said. “Because love and life matters.”

Find your dose. 

Find your vaccination today at tpchd.org/vaxtothefuture. Everyone 12 and older is eligible. You can register online or just drop in at any clinic and get vaccinated without an appointment. 

If you need a ride to an appointment or can’t easily leave your home, we can help! Call us at (253) 649-1412, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 7 days a week.

Your role to stop the spread of COVID-19 remains critical.