Kirk Siegler

With so much land under federal control in the West, it's long been said the secretary of the Interior has much more of a direct affect on most people's lives than the president. This experience could arguably be multiplied tenfold on reservations.

In her confirmation hearing earlier this year, Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico nodded to the fact that the department she now leads was historically used as a tool of oppression toward tribes.

In the summer of 2019, Molina Richards got a call that made her stomach sink. One of her best friend's teenage daughters had gone missing on the Rosebud Reservation.

It took police several days to organize a formal search party because they kept getting tips that she had been seen in various parts of the vast, 1,900-square-mile reservation in one of the most isolated parts of the lower 48 states.

"All the leads, they didn't find her," Richards said, choking back tears as she recalled the trauma of that July day.

Lila Kills In Sight lost her 81-year-old mother to COVID-19 on Nov. 23.

"I really don't know who to be mad at," she said. "Who do I take my frustration to, how do I deal with it?"

Kills In Sight, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, is the first to say she's not dealing with it well. She had been keeping her mom sheltered mostly in her home in the remote community of Spring Creek as the pandemic raged in South Dakota. But in September she broke her hip. Then in November she fell.

Not many American towns the size of Pinedale, population roughly 2,000, can boast that they have a $22 million aquatic center, with a beautiful lap pool, water slides, yoga rooms and a three-story climbing wall.

Then again, most rural towns this size probably haven't had the steady pipeline of tax revenue from natural gas pumped off nearby federal land to pay for it. The opening of the center, more than a decade ago, convinced its now director Amber Anderson to move back home after college in 2018 as a young professional.

In Washington state, federal aid is finally coming to a struggling farming community that was nearly decimated by a wildfire last Labor Day.

After 15 years working in western oil patches, Antonio Magana finally struck out on his own, starting a small oil and gas well servicing company.

Then the pandemic hit.

Demand tanked and production ground nearly to a halt here in Wyoming's Jonah Field. Magana and his skeleton staff are down to working just three days a week.

"Right now, not much going on, you know, we've been working little hours," Magana says. "A lot of people lost their jobs a month ago, a lot of people."

As the violent mob broke into the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, and livestreams showed pro-Trump insurrectionists defacing property and posing in the House Speaker's chair, here in the West, feelings of shock quickly faded to familiarity.

"There are years of warning signs," said Eric Ward of the Western States Center, which tracks extremism in Oregon and the West.

In the small town of Oak Creek, Colo., — a three-hour drive from Denver, assuming the roads are clear — Gene Bracegirdle, a firefighter and EMT in training, is getting his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

"The fact that it is here is kind of mind-blowing, like, they care enough to reach out to the rural communities," Bracegirdle says.

It can feel like a parallel universe when you go from a city where kids are cooped up inside at home doing school virtually on their tablets to an isolated small town such as Bruneau, Idaho.

One afternoon this week, the bell had just rung and kids were emptying out of the small elementary school and into the snowy parking lot, almost as if it's 2019 and there is no pandemic.

No one appears to be wearing a mask, which is just fine with parents such as Cassandra Folkman.

"I don't make them wear 'em anywhere we go," Folkman says. "I don't wear one and they don't."

These last few days have been chaotic at the Nimiipuu Health Clinic on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho.

The director, Dr. R. Kim Hartwig, is trying to manage testing and treating patients for COVID- 19 and other diseases, while also racing to get a plan in place to distribute a vaccine.

"It's not something that we have a timeline [for], it's like, I got a call and was told, 'You're gonna get a vaccine in two weeks, get a plan together,' " she says.

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