ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. --- While the COVID-19 crisis has affected the entire planet, in the United States, the Native American community has been hit particularly hard. In New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, the Navajo Nation is under a mighty struggle, with over 1,000 cases alone on the reservation.
It's not just the Navajo Nation unfortunately, as the COVID-19 crisis has hit all the American Indian reservations and pueblos hard. One such group hit particularly hard is the Lakota Tribe in South Dakota. And that's where UNM Lobo senior football player Teton Saltes calls home. That's where Saltes is making a difference, as the Valley High School graduate has headed back to his home and helping the Oglala Lakota Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Saltes has become known in national football circles for his community service work. He was the only junior to be named a semifinalist for the Wuerffel Trophy, award given annually to the college football player "who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement." He has spoken to congress on behalf of the "Save The Children Action Network" and he has worked tirelessly on suicide prevention.
Now, working with tribal leadership, he is traveling throughout the Pine Ridge Reservation, bringing much needed food and medicine to the residents, and even taking temperatures of many of the residents. It's a necessary task due to the hard-hit nature of the area.
"Our reservation is on complete lockdown because we have positive cases of COVID 19 on it," said Saltes. "People aren't allowed to leave their homes. The reservation line is also locked down and nobody is allowed to enter or exit the reservation line."
"My family and I are helping people by delivering food and supplies to families who need help but aren't allowed to leave their homes. We're also feeding young students who are missing meals because of the schools being shut down. For a lot of students here, the meals they receive at school are the only meals that they get. We receive food donations from the local grocery store and then we distribute food to all the schools on the reservation."
Saltes isn't a nursing major at UNM. He's a political science major with eyes on becoming a lawyer, because as he has stated in many interviews, including on ESPN2 with Adam Amin and Laura Rutledge, changing law that is the only way to truly affect change for Native Americans. Yet, wearing personal protective equipment, Saltes is doing what he can to help detect new cases. "I'm also helping with taking temperatures of workers here to try and detect people who may have COVID-19," he said.
For his head coach Danny Gonzales, none of it is surprising. Gonzales, also a Valley graduate, wasn't with UNM when Saltes came to the Lobos, but he recruited him when he was the defensive coordinator at San Diego State and got to know Teton well through the process.
"Teton is an incredible student-athlete, and he is an incredible person," said Gonzales. "To see what he is doing on the Pine Ridge Reservation is inspiring, and he is an incredible representative of UNM and Albuquerque."
Saltes, who is looking forward to his senior year with UNM, has NFL aspirations, which will only give him a larger platform to talk about the issues that are near to his heart. In the moment however, he is doing everything he can for the people on his reservation, and like all other Lobo Heroes, he is a shining example of the type of student-athletes that have represented UNM.