A tragic result of racism: An unintended biological holocaust on indigenous peoples

April 30, 2020
While coronavirus does not discriminate, people in times of crisis do. Public health officials have already noted familiar patterns of racial and economic bias in response to this pandemic.  And perhaps worst affected are our continent’s first people. This discriminatory treatment compounds the extreme vulnerability among people whose opportunities and lives are shaped by structural racism and accumulated disadvantage.
Native Americans are in the highest risk category for vulnerability to coronavirus. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that if COVID-19 follows the same pattern as H1N1 in 2009 and the flu pandemic of 1918, the devastation in Indian Country will proportionately far exceed that of the rest of the US. When age-adjusted rates per 100,000 population were compared, the 2009 H1N1 influenza death rate among tribal people in the US was four times that of all other races combined. 
A 3/31/20 article by MSN reported that New Mexico's governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham warned that tribal nations could be 'wiped out' by coronavirus, COVID-19, or as Navajo Nation leaders have named it, “Dikos Nitsaaígíí Náhást’éíts’áadah.” She is particularly concerned about the Navajo Nation, its territory including parts of northwestern New Mexico as well as parts of Utah and Arizona and covering about 27,413 square miles (roughly the size of West Virginia).  To try to contain the pandemic, Navajo authorities announced they would implement a weekend lockdown on April 10 in case of an emergency and that lockdown has since been extended. The lockdown and concerns beyond it could result in a shortage of food and water delivery on tribal lands. The scarcity of running water on the reservation makes it harder to wash hands. And to make matters worse, many on the reservation have pre-existing health conditions, including respiratory problems caused by the indoor pollution created by the wood and coal used to heat many Navajo homes.
In an online Town Hall Meeting, Sunday, April 21, New Mexico’s Governor along with Tribal and Indian Affairs Leaders, Congressional representatives, addressed the challenges that Navajo Nation is facing.  In the April 21 video, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, indicated that at that time, “5038 citizens in the Navajo Nation have been tested for the virus resulting in 1,042 testing positive (more than 20%) with still 500 test results (10%) pending” that may or may not be positive.  
The program’s moderator, Conroy Chino, (Acoma Pueblo Tribe) Owner of Chino Works stated that 37% of New Mexico’s COVID cases are in tribal communities even though these same communities only make up 10% of the state’s population.  Among the insurmountable challenges these communities are facing, is insufficient funding and the need to navigate Federal and multiple state funding sources.  But amid these challenges, Conroy Chino honors the “warrior nature” in this population, “There are positive stories, heartfelt stories of how our citizens are stepping up and being warriors.  Being out there for their Elders, getting supplies and food directly to them, that’s being a true warrior.”
U.S. Congresswoman Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) noted, “Many communities of color are at a high risk of being ignored.  Indian Country across the nation has been left behind and underfunded for decades. Underfunded with our healthcare system, with our infrastructure, with our broadband internet.  These are all things we are behind in.  And if we had been up to par with that infrastructure, perhaps we would be in a much better place now.”
And the problem goes beyond the Navajo nation.  In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation Tribe is bracing for a surge in Coronavirus cases.  In Montana, the Chinook Indian Nation, which is not recognized by the federal government as a sovereign entity will likely not get the medical care or other basic services guaranteed under treaties to recognized tribal nations. In Minnesota, Chairman Darrell Seki urged tribal members to protect elders, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease, and told them that tribal officials are establishing emergency food supplies from the reservation’s natural resources to be distributed if necessary.   And this is just the tip of the iceberg in this Titanic-sized crisis.
Among the crucial statistics that indicate how dire conditions are for American Indians and Alaska Natives: Indian Health Service hospitals have only 625 beds nationwide, with six intensive care unit beds and 10 ventilators to serve more than 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives from 574 tribes.  Some tribes provide additional health services in their communities, but these programs only supply another 772 beds. That’s only 1,397 for 2.5 million people.
Native Americans already have been thought to have the highest mortality rate of any U.S. minority.  We all know of the history of native American genocide that began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus, yet the biggest killers of this population have been smallpox, measles, influenza, whooping cough, diphtheria, typhus, scarlet fever and others that were brought in by non-native people.  Now we can add coronavirus to the list.
For the past twelve years, Everyday Democracy and some of its Anchor Partners across the nation have been working with tribal groups that are using Dialogue to Change to reduce poverty, improve access to housing and to healthy food, to strengthen programs for young children, and to raise the voices of this vulnerable population that has already sacrificed so much.  Tribal colleges and nations across the Pacific Northwest took part in Horizons, a large-scale initiative to address poverty and create thriving communities. In New Mexico, Everyday Democracy collaborated with and learned much from the All-Indian Pueblo Council, Five Sandoval Pueblo, and Zia Pueblo in connection with the Strong Starts Initiative on early childhood development. In South Dakota, we have worked very closely with the Wagner, SD, Dialogue to Change effort led by Vince Two Eagles and Amy Doom. Our Anchor Partner, South Dakota University Extension, works closely with the Dakota and Yankton Sioux and Lakota Sioux Native communities and other Tribal nations in the state.
Roberto Chene, a nationally recognized consultant in intercultural communication and conflict resolution from New Mexico who has worked with Everyday Democracy through the years notes that indigenous people are often not even part of the conversation when the media is reporting on the disproportionate negative impact this virus is having on communities of color. “Perhaps it’s related to the racist myth that indigenous people are of the past.   I’m not very hopeful  but it’s possible that the dramatic and unfortunate scandal of the racial disparities currently being played out may wake people up enough to result in some structural change after all this is over.”
Everyday Democracy Executive Director Martha McCoy echoes this concern and asks for a call to action, “Our country and communities can do better: the policies and actions that created these disparities must be examined and addressed, to create equity.”
We will lose many of our nation’s indigenous people and the rich culture, traditions and native languages may be weakened in the short term, but we can hope that this tragic virus and the new realities it has thrust upon us will instead make our indigenous populations stronger, and in the end they will receive the supports needed to put them on an even playing field with the rest of the nation’s communities.  Perhaps Conroy Chino said it best, when closing the April 21st Town Hall Meeting in New Mexico, “It’s time to reflect on the values that have made all of us uniquely the same – faith, friendship, family, love, endurance, compassion, community hope, prosperity and most of all, good health.”
For those looking to help, here are some resources:

The Native Health Initiative and Loving Service: The Native Health Initiative is achieving health equity through Loving Service (the human-to-human element of wanting to serve others) with Indigenous Communities.

New Mexico Navajo Nation Resources:

Navajo Nation Government:

Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska Tribes:

Everyday Democracy.  All rights reserved.  Author: Sandra Rodriguez.  Article Contributors:  Martha McCoy, Valeriano Ramos, Nyesha McCauley, Roberto Chene, Eduardo Martinez and Amy Malick.

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