What Indian Country Remembers About Survival
The community care at the heart of Indigenous response.
In Indian Country, there is a collective experience known as blood memory. Words seem to fail explaining this phenomenon because, first and foremost, blood memory is a feeling or a knowing, but my interpretation is that blood memory is an embodied remembrance passed down from generation to generation. Some people refer to blood memory as akin to genetic or ancestral trauma or epigenetic inheritance. The bottom line when understanding blood memory is, simply, that we pass down in our familial lineages experiences and memories. Sometimes they are good and joyful and sometimes they are traumatic and rooted in grief.
As the coronavirus spreads, North America’s Indigenous Peoples hold a unique experience of stress and fear because of this blood memory. In the 18th century, as European settlers sought to colonize Indigenous lands, they weaponized germs, giving blankets infected with smallpox to tribal communities to slow down Native resistance and to decimate Native populations. In addition to smallpox, measles and influenza were also brought to North America during these early periods of colonization. It is estimated that together these diseases killed 90% of Native Americans.
Colonial violence led to other public health injustices and crises within Indigenous communities. In the 19th century, the federal government forced Native peoples onto reservations, disenfranchising Native populations and creating to this day vast injustices in access to public health services. During the 1970s, the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act led to the sterilization of Native women. According to Time magazine, between 1970 and 1977 at least 25% of Native American women of childbearing age were sterilized.
This history matters in this moment because our communities remember. As individuals, our bodies remember. And because of this, Native people may be experiencing anxiety and distrust in our government’s commitment to public health.
This is why “indigenizing” community care is so critical as we work to protect Indigenous communities and people from COVID-19.
In mid-March, as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to put stress on cities across the country and as the federal government slowly acknowledged the crisis, putting millions at risk, I wrote an article aimed at grounding our community in the cultural and spiritual practices that fortify our spirits. It included a call for an Indigenous response to the pandemic.
Now, when we are having to practice “social distancing,” is a perfect time to learn traditional medicines—tinctures and syrups, traditional foods, plant medicines, and fermentation. Traditional medicines that support immune and respiratory systems and are also antiviral include: osha, fire cider, garlic, elderberry, lemon balm, and oregano. While these traditional food ways aren’t guaranteed to cure or prevent COVID-19, we know that they can support resilience and contribute to healthier life ways.
Community is central in the Indigenous response. Identify who in our community is most vulnerable and strategize the best ways to protect them.
Working collectively at community care is more important now than ever. When we are able to quiet all the worries, the media, and public frenzy, we can see a bigger picture: This moment is an opportunity to come together in community, in care, and in preparation. Grave threats like climate change and pandemics are real—we know this as crisis scenarios become more frequent and more extreme.
Community is central in the Indigenous response. Identify who in our community is most vulnerable and strategize the best ways to protect them. Think about food security, and not in an individualistic sense, but in a collective sense, ensuring that there is abundance to share.
All communities can reflect on some universal questions: Are we overly dependent on food and materials coming from nonlocal sources? Do we have energy security in case the electrical grid is damaged by extreme weather or we cannot access fossil fuels? What are the most fundamental collective values we will draw upon in high stress moments? How do we make decisions? And how do we not turn on each other?
As the pandemic progressed through April, these questions became more urgent. We have seen American society fall into toxic individualism; masses began to panic shop and hoard supplies, creating shortages of food and health care supplies across the country. We have also witnessed exacerbation of the inequities in this country—access to health care, water rights, housing, income, and job security.
This is especially true in Indian Country.
In the Navajo Nation, one of the largest tribes in the U.S. and where the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has been growing exponentially, there aren’t enough doctors, hospital beds, and respirators. To be sure, this kind of problem isn’t new; the coronavirus has just amplified the consequences of underfunding health services in Indian Country. While these communities struggle to respond with emergency health care, they are also facing food and water shortages. In the Navajo Nation, it is estimated that 1 in 3 families haul water to their homes every day. It can take multiple hours to drive to a water-filling station. Strict but necessary stay-at-home orders disadvantage Navajo families’ ability to survive, let alone protect themselves from COVID-19 by washing their hands.
Yet Indigenous communities are showing how community care and self-determination can provide security and solutions during times like this.
Former Navajo attorney general Ethel Branch quickly organized a COVID-19 relief fund that, as of April, had raised $600,000 to provide support to Navajo and Hopi families across New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. The Navajo are designing technology and social media systems to connect community members far and wide, enabling urban family members to fill out forms so that supplies can reach their families living in rural areas. Many Navajo do not have access to wifi or cellular networks.
The result of this community organizing is food and water delivered safely across the 16 million acres of the Navajo Nation. This effort to support families across vast distance is no small feat and requires a deep understanding of how to navigate supporting a community this large. It makes sense for the help to come from within—accounting for language, knowing how best to reach people and collect data, and of course understanding the environment and landscape itself.
Indigenous values are woven throughout implementation. Elders are being prioritized, culture and language are being integrated and honored, and above all the organizers and volunteers are practicing compassion and care for the whole, rather than individualism.
The Lummi, in the coastal Pacific Northwest, are showing us how self-determination benefits tribal communities. Decades ago the Lummi declared themselves a self-governing nation. This has enabled more financial flexibility and health autonomy, as the tribe works outside the bureaucracy of the Indian Health Service. Lummi medical teams led the way in responding to COVID-19 by creating preventative measures in their community long before the federal government did. They turned a fitness center into a field hospital to be ready as cases emerged.
The Lummi response stands as a model for other tribal communities—all communities, in fact—for how self-determination can create meaningful infrastructure and better allocate resources.
Because of its self-governing status, the tribe is not reliant on federal programs for accessing emergency funds. In April, many tribes worried about how they would receive funding from a stimulus bill that provided $10 billion to tribal governments. Would federal and state bureaucracy create barriers to slow the distribution of “emergency” funds while tribal members face their normal food, water, and health care shortages?
While these examples illustrate the potential of nations and communities, I want to shine light on what individuals are capable of when we reclaim our Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge.
In northern Nevada, in Numu territories, Autumn Harry is putting her passion and traditional knowledge of fishing to use during this time. “Living in a rural community, it is difficult to access healthy, nutrient-dense foods. Due to the pandemic, our nearest grocery stores are still getting ransacked and items are being hoarded, forcing our rural communities to pick from the scraps. Although I can’t make monetary contributions to elders during this time, I can use my fishing skills to help put ancestral foods on the table,” says Harry.
Throughout March and April, Harry fished for trout in the mornings. She would take her catch home and create sterilized and safe packages for elders, demonstrating that we as Indigenous people have knowledge useful not just in this COVID-19 crisis but for generations to come.
There is no sugar coating this moment. It is hard, it is unfair, and it is extremely sad. That said, it is a moment of profound clarity for tribal communities, for the United States, and for the world: The systems that are supposed to offer us health, safety, and shelter do not work; they put profit over the well-being of countless citizens. As challenging, as scary, and as dark as this time is, it is a political and spiritual opening for people everywhere.
We will survive COVID-19. And when this pandemic has stabilized, I encourage you not to forget the feelings and the lessons of this moment. How did your community take care of one another? How did your government take care of you?