In reporting on the transformative thinking Native communities are putting into action in these tumultuous times, I heard time and time again: “This is not our first pandemic.” Since the 1500s, when ever-larger numbers of Europeans began arriving in this hemisphere, disasters have come thick and fast for the First Nations, including tens of millions wiped out within a century by continual waves of unfamiliar diseases—measles, influenza, smallpox, typhus, diphtheria, and more. Village after village stood empty. Enduring shock and grief, the survivors relied on ancient lifeways to support them as new trials arose.
Here, three Indigenous communities share heritage ways to live and care for each other that they have refined during this latest pandemic. The aim now, as ever, is ensuring a safe, sustainable future for their people. The plans meet the tests of both time and extreme adversity. Native people have told me so many times it has become a refrain: “We are still here.”
We have been gifted a time of dealing with apocalyptic challenges.
Their ideas needn’t be exactly duplicated, nor would it be possible to do so. Instead, they can serve as inspirations for other communities that wish to find their own ways to solve the many difficulties we all face.
Each of these future-focused ideas has a local orientation. The Rosebud Sioux are developing a large new buffalo herd as the basis of a wholesome community food system. Menominees are building homes with age-old ideas about reciprocal relationships that strengthen individuals and their connections to each other, to the community as a whole, and to the world around them. For Kake, an Alaska Native Village, peacemaking circles repair broken relationships through heartfelt discussions that both heal and minimize the recurrence of wrongdoing.
“We have been gifted a time of dealing with apocalyptic challenges,” said Fawn R. Sharp, president of both the National Congress of American Indians and the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington State in an NCAI town hall on November 12. “We are ready, and we are prepared.”
Feeding the People
Ululating cries accompanied 100 buffalo as they thundered out of a holding pen and onto the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. “They circled the pen four times—a significant number to Lakota people—then ran out into the field,” says Cleve Her Many Horses, director of the Rosebud Tribal Land Enterprise, which arranged the lease for the buffalos’ 28,000-acre pasture.
On that late October day, Her Many Horses joined a small group of tribal citizens, tribal officials, and representatives of the National Park Service and the World Wildlife Fund to watch the animals take up residence on the tribe’s newly named Wolakota Buffalo Range. “It was a beautiful day,” says Rosebud citizen Deanna Eagle Feather. The elders wanted the herd established not because of nostalgia, she says, but because buffalo are such an important component of their life. “It’s about rebuilding our relationship with the land we live on. For the land, the people, the animals, the plants, and the water, there can be a healthy balance again.”
The bison were a gift of the Department of the Interior through its new Buffalo Conservation Initiative, the capstone of decades of work by scientists and park managers to support the animals’ genetic diversity and to ensure that they are as much as possible like the original wild buffalo. The group of 100 were the first of what will be 1,500 given to Rosebud from federal park herds over the next several years. The World Wildlife Fund provides financing for animal transport, ongoing environmental assessments, and other needs.
At full strength, it will be the largest Native-owned herd in North America and the foundation of a healthy local food system for the reservation. The buffalo join the gardens of Rosebud’s Food Sovereignty Initiative to make the tribe independent of our nation’s dangerous centralized, disease-ridden food system.
A project of the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, Wolakota Buffalo Range is understood tribally as a model for other communities that want to develop local food sources. The word wolakota means living the Lakota way of life, says Eagle Feather. Buffalo have been the foundation of that life since time immemorial—providing food, clothing, tools, and shelter. They are also emblematic of Lakota values like respect, love, patience, and caring for each other and the land. “Spiritual and physical health come in many forms,” she says. “I hope Wolakota Buffalo Range inspires others.”
The herd’s benefits will be many. Plans are underway to use it to provide food for elders and children, welcome students from a Lakota language immersion school, offer animal shares to tribal members who wish to build their own herds, and support a small meat-processing facility.
“Lots of tribes have herds, but they’re not [big enough to be] integrated into the community food chain,” says Her Many Horses. “Many reservations are food deserts. Our grocery stores offer sugary drinks and fatty foods instead of fresh, healthy ones. And we always have shortages, which many other people are experiencing countrywide nowadays because of the pandemic.” The new herd changes that. “Now, we’ll have lean buffalo meat for the people and food sovereignty for the reservation,” he says.
Another benefit is cultural. “As a Native American, I know that buffalo are our relatives,” says Assistant Range Manager TJ Heinert, a Rosebud tribal citizen. “Our creation stories tell us that. It was so emotional for me to see the buffalo move through the gates and onto the pasture.”
Heinert’s daily duties include checking the buffalos’ welfare as they get used to their new home. “You keep your distance and keep a calm mind, as they’re powerful and capable of a lot of damage,” Heinert says. “As with any animal, you respect them, and they will respect you.” Some are still skittish and run away when they see him. Others stand still and curl their lip and try to catch a scent of him. “They are trying to figure out what you are,” he says. “Caring for them is an amazing experience.”
The buffalo will, in turn, care for their human relatives, he says. “We provide the grassland and whatever else they need. Later, they will give back to us, as they once did. It all makes sense.”
Living in Harmony
“The pandemic shone a light on the many systems in our world that are collapsing,” says Kristin Welch, from the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. “Though tragic, it has also brought truth to light. Communities can create their own independent ecosystems of caring with food, housing, education, and health care for their people.”
Welch, a Menominee descendant, is a community organizer for the reservation-based nonprofit Menikanaehkem. The group’s name translates as “community rebuilders,” and its work includes constructing villages to serve as culturally based transitional housing for those in need of temporary refuge. The first compactly designed, solar-powered 168-square-foot “tiny home” is already welcoming residents. Two more are in the planning stages, with the aim of completing two villages of five to ten homes each within about three years, says Guy Reiter, Menikanaehkem’s executive director. The villages will be a mix of tiny homes for transitional residents and larger, permanent family homes, he says.
Tiny homes may be newly popular in mainstream culture—promoting simpler living in smaller places—but Native people have always had diminutive living places, Reiter says. Tipis, wikiups, hogans, and other Indigenous structures have far more modest floor plans than most houses in the U.S. today. But non-Native communities needn’t reproduce a tribal village in order to do more humane town planning, he adds. He stresses the need for groups to find their own way to promote reciprocity, which he describes as a bond between individuals and the community as a whole.
Our language is all about connection and love.
“Our language is all about connection and love,” Reiter says. “Connection to all things. That is part of everything we do as a people.”
Menominees assist the residents of the tiny homes in a range of roles. Elders and other tribal members work with representatives of the tribal government and its departments, the college, the health clinic, and other community organizations to find solutions to residents’ problems. The fundamental questions, Welch says, are “How can we support our relatives?” and “How can we help them get where they want to be?”
To achieve these goals, tiny-home residents are encouraged to cultivate their mind, body, spirituality, and emotions with activities ranging from gardening and wild-rice gathering to job-skills development. “Our elders say you have to meet your prayer halfway,” Reiter says. “You can’t just pray and not do action.”
Residents make practical items—soap, blankets, and more—that they use and give to others, including the next resident of the home. This, in turn, stimulates a local, environmentally sound barter economy. “Barter reduces the perception of income gaps and returns economic power to the people,” Welch says.
A monthly support circle guides each tiny-home resident, says Welch, who is also lead organizer for a group working on the issue of this country’s many missing and murdered Indigenous women. A resident’s support circle is based on traditional tribal talking circles, in which participants speak in turn, uninterrupted, as the rest of the group listens. A tiny-home support circle includes the resident, family members and friends, elders, representatives from relevant tribal offices, and Menikanaehkem staffers, according to Welch.
“Sometimes it’s a question of providing information,” she says. “We might explain what we offer to deal with a certain issue. Or elders recount their own journeys, which is very moving and helpful.” When residents are ready to move out of the transitional home, they join the next resident’s support circle, and the reciprocity continues.
The tiny homes’ small size has the advantage of encouraging people to be out and about, according to Reiter. “We wanted to make sure people who live there are spending as much time as possible outside,” he says. “One of our greatest teachers is the Earth, and she will teach you all you need to know if you’re willing to listen. …We hope the tiny homes will open those doors again. They have been closed by colonization and the hustle and bustle of this life.”
Embracing Justice—and Empathy
With coronavirus ravaging this country’s crowded prisons, minimizing incarceration is a matter of life and death. These days, even a brief custodial sentence can be a death sentence. The towns and cities near prisons, where guards and other employees live, are in jeopardy as well. To address this alarming problem, numerous states are trying to reduce prison density by giving some prisoners early release or easing probation requirements.
Will these perils persuade us to look to Native communities for a sensible, long-proven alternative that doesn’t put people behind bars in the first place? “We tend not to throw people away, to throw them in prison and not think about how to help them heal from what caused their bad behavior,” said Brett Lee Shelton, an Oglala Lakota attorney with the Native American Rights Fund and director of its Indigenous Peacemaking Initiative, via email.
According to Shelton, Native communities around the country use circle peacemaking, based on the traditional talking circle. Participants, including the wrongdoer, the victim, and other interested and affected community members, including friends and family, speak in turn then collaboratively craft a sentence. This often includes some combination of an apology and community service. Though no national peacemaking compliance rates have been compiled, Shelton finds anecdotally that compliance around the country tends to be in the 90-percent range.
Circle peacemaking’s aim is working together to repair broken relationships, says Mike Jackson, Alaska District Court Magistrate and Keeper of the Circle in the Organized Village of Kake. The 550-person federally recognized tribe is on a small island off southeastern Alaska. Its judicial practice is the polar opposite of mainstream courts’ adversarial process, in which laws are deemed broken and lawyers battle before a judge and jury to determine guilt and punishment.
Jackson describes Kake’s peacemaking process as functioning on both individual and community levels. It first helps resolve the immediate problems of victim and wrongdoer. It then moves on to weave the disputants back into village life. In starting the individuals on their healing journey, the circle strengthens the tribe at large.
This is radically unlike the release of prison detainees, who have been separated from their community since sentencing or longer and must now struggle, often alone, to re-enter it—overcoming hurdles to finding a job, housing, and other means to make that possible. Unsurprisingly, recidivism is high with court-imposed sentences. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study of prisoners released in 2005, some 83% were arrested again within nine years.
The peacemaking circles are such a powerful feature of life in Kake that families and youth have occasionally requested a circle absent any court involvement, says Jackson. The meetings serve as interventions for those wanting guidance during a rough patch in their lives. “They felt safe in a circle. They felt they could speak confidentially. Children could listen to the heartfelt concerns of their parents. The circle makes an impact.”
Mainstream courts from Anchorage to New York City are now using peacemaking circles. Shelton said interest from non-Native courts is increasing steadily. NARF fields the most inquiries from judges with criminal dockets seeking to reduce caseload, cut costs per case, and produce more beneficial and lasting outcomes, according to Shelton.
In a moving video shown during Native American Rights Fund ’s 2020 online Peacemaking Colloquium, a Michigan state court circle is seen helping non-Native parents who were experiencing homelessness and, as a result, lost their children to foster care. The court brought case workers, attorneys, and other professionals into the circle, which by its format encouraged them to participate with enthusiasm as well as expertise. With their smiles and support, the family members found housing and were reunited.
Attorney Erika Sasson, director of restorative practices for the Center for Court Innovation in New York City, describes a Brooklyn high-school program that finds kids sitting in circles without prompting, to work out their issues. “We’ve also had people come to us who had their legal issue resolved in state court but tell us, ‘That’s not what we have to go home to.’ Yes, they got their day in court, but it never included getting to say, ‘This is what happened to me,’ as they would in a circle.”
“I want to be sure to credit our Indigenous teachers,” Sasson added. “Before we started the program in Red Hook, [Brooklyn], we had a roundtable with Mike Jackson and other Native peacemakers and healers. We asked if they felt it was alright for us to do circle peacemaking in state court. Mike responded, ‘It’s about time.’”
As a country, we may be ready for this empathetic form of justice. During the 2020 presidential election, which highlighted the nation’s divisions, successful state ballot measures told a different story. In multiple states, The Washington Post reported, Americans united to make life easier for each other—by decriminalizing certain drugs, restoring ex-detainees’ voting rights, eliminating racially offensive state symbols, and, according to The New York Times, increasing the minimum wage.
We may even be ready for empathy. In 1776, our founders claimed the new nation aspired to achieve e pluribus unum—“out of many, one”—the motto on our Great Seal and currency. However, the wealthy and powerful of the time quickly began to apply that ideal to only themselves as they grabbed land and resources for personal gain and took steps to ensure their privileged status. The political and social cacophony of recent years has further drowned out expressions of compassion and unity. If we listen carefully, we can hear the rational, gracious, intensely determined voices of the nation’s First Peoples as they explain how, in very practical ways, we can go about caring for each other and thereby achieve a stronger whole.
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 7:36 a.m. PST on December 21, 2020 to clarify that Kristin Welch is a Menominee descendant, rather than a citizen of the tribe. Read our corrections policy here.
Stephanie Woodard is an award-winning journalist who writes on human rights and culture with a focus on Native American issues. She is the author of American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle for Self-Determination and Inclusion.