Women Making a Mark: Seh Welch

She initiated a nationwide support system for tribal communities to handle the pandemic

Photo by Martha Williams

When Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set out to tackle the pandemic, it was all hands on deck. Seh Welch, whose work was previously dedicated to coordinating with 47 different nations to address HIV and tuberculosis, offered to help repurpose those labs to test for Covid-19. She volunteered for the Emergency Operations Center’s State, Local, and Territorial Task Force and quickly realized that there was just one dedicated person to work with 574 tribes.

Welch is Blackfeet, and though born in Ohio, she spent summers with family on the Blackfeet Nation reservation in Montana, learning their language, culture, and traditions. That connection to her heritage prompted her to join the effort to better equip tribes to fight Covid head-on. She pioneered the CDC’s Tribal Support Section, which grew to include 42 staff members, executing 70 unique deployments and fi eld support activities, plus remote technical assistance to tribes.

“The aha moment was pulling together what I called tripods. I’d have tribal leaders, federal entities, and state tribal liaisons on the same phone call,” says Welch, who would often ask tribal leaders to simply tell their stories and, from there, she would tap the necessary resources to help with everything from temporary housing for quarantine to testing and health messaging.

She also spearheaded pre-deployment training for CDC staff to better understand tribal nations’ cultures and created an engaging coloring book with visuals and simple messaging for children to understand Covid and help stop the spread. More than 250,000 copies were printed and distributed to Indian Country through the Indian Health Service. “There’s trauma and historical distrust of the federal government,” she says. “Being a tribal person leading tripod calls, there was more trust for them to come forward, say what they needed, and know that we wouldn’t use it against them.”