In Indian Country, there is a collective experience known as blood memory. Words seem to fail explaining this phenomenon because 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. More simply, 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 spread in the spring of 2020, North America’s Indigenous Peoples carried 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 centuries of colonization. It is estimated that together these diseases killed 90% of Native Americans.
Colonial violence has 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. Between 1970 and 1977, at least 25% of Native American women of childbearing age were sterilized.
These historical events matter in this moment because our communities remember. What’s more, our bodies and our spirits remember.
Yet despite this collective remembering, this trauma, and the anxieties that this deep-rooted grief brings up, Native peoples organized and came together in innovative and courageous ways in 2020. Once again, we demonstrated our ability to survive and thrive in the face of uncertainty and peril.
In the Navajo Nation, one of the largest tribes in the U.S., the COVID-19 infection rate reached the highest per capita in the U.S. during the summer of 2020. As the Navajo Nation responded to the exponential rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths, it had to grapple with health care gaps that have existed for decades, if not centuries. Even before cases reached the peak, there was a lack of doctors, hospital beds, respirators, and equipment across the Navajo Nation. To be sure, this problem isn’t new; the coronavirus just amplified the long and shameful history of underfunding health services in Indian Country.
While these communities struggled to respond with emergency health care, they also faced food and water shortages, highlighting yet another gap: infrastructure. In the Navajo Nation, it is estimated that one in three families haul water to their homes, and it can take multiple hours to drive to a water-filling station—that is, if you have transportation. Of course, during a pandemic, access to water is essential for basic health and safety. However, strict but necessary stay-at-home orders disadvantaged Navajo families’ ability to survive as hauling water became limited. This is but a microcosm of what the pandemic has brought to our attention in the last year: Investment in basic infrastructure and health care has been too long neglected, leaving us unprepared for crises such as pandemics or impacts from climate change.
Yet Indigenous communities, like the Navajo, showed how community care and self-determination can provide security and solutions during times like this.
Across the Navajo Nation, mutual aid powered by community members and leaders provided Navajo and Hopi families across New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah with everything from food and water to firewood, protective personal equipment, and traditional medicine bags to support people spiritually. During the summer, I traveled from my home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Flagstaff, Arizona, to deliver supplies to a warehouse that served as a hub for receiving goods to be distributed to Navajo families. Inside the warehouse were all of the supplies one might need from the grocery store—boxes of baby food and diapers, women’s health care products, light bulbs and, yes, toilet paper. Goods were delivered to people in need so families could avoid travel and remain safe in their homes. On this same trip to Flagstaff, I learned that Navajo doctors were also providing mutual aid to one another and sending protective equipment to remote clinics in order to stay safe as they provided care. In 2020, so many of us saw the value and deep reciprocity that exists within mutual aid. This trip, for me, affirmed the power of mutual aid and community organizing and how this solution will be needed in the years and generations to come.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Navajo communities used social media systems to connect community members far and wide, enabling urban family members to fill out request forms so that supplies could reach their families living in rural areas. Many Navajo people do not have access to Wi-Fi or cellular networks, another infrastructure gap that needs to be addressed as we rebuild and recover from this pandemic.
Thanks to this community organizing, food and water were delivered safely throughout the 16 million acres of the Navajo Nation. Connecting people with mutual aid across vast distances is no small feat and requires cultural understanding to support a community this large.
It makes sense for the help to come from within, from people who speak the traditional Diné language, who know how to best reach people and collect data, and, of course, who understand the environment and landscape itself.
Indigenous values are woven throughout implementation of the community care we saw during the pandemic. Elders were and 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, instead of focusing on individualism.
Perhaps this is one of the lessons or memories that has survived throughout time to serve us as Native People again and again: caring for the whole. Recall the first weeks of the pandemic, when we saw American society fall into toxic individualism as masses began to panic shop and hoard supplies, creating shortages of food and health care supplies across the country. But not in Indian Country. Instead, we looked around our communities and responded by identifying who in our community was most vulnerable. We thought about food security, ensuring that there was abundance for our people as we navigated shelter-in-place and lockdowns. But these questions are not new for us. Because of threats like climate change, environmental destruction, and displacement, we are often faced with questions about what will best serve our survival.
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? These questions and our responses to them will continue to help us thrive.
As some nations relied on mutual aid to navigate the storm of COVID-19, other nations relied on their sovereignty to protect their people.
The Lummi Nation, in the coastal Pacific Northwest, showed how self-determination benefits tribal communities. Over the past decade, the Lummi Nation has been developing its community health care system in an effort to fully practice self-determination. In 2017, the tribe adopted an Emergency Health Powers Code, which provided a framework for implementing rapid responses, and in 2018 the tribe received a grant from the Indian Health Service to support self-determination in health programs. Since 2010, the Lummi health services have raised substantial revenue by treating patients on Medicaid and Medicare as part of a third-party billing program created by President Obama. This added income has enabled more financial flexibility and health autonomy, allowing the tribe to work outside the bureaucracy of the severely underfunded Indian Health Service. Because the Lummi had the financial resources and infrastructure in place before the pandemic hit, they were able to respond quickly and effectively.
Lummi medical teams led the way in responding to COVID-19 by creating preventative measures in their community long before the federal government did. As the first U.S. case was confirmed in Seattle, just 115 miles south of the Lummi reservation, the Lummi people quickly responded. On March 3, 2020, the tribe’s leaders declared a State of Public Health Emergency, 10 days before the U.S. president declared a national state of emergency, and they turned a fitness center into a field hospital—the first in the nation—to be ready as cases emerged.
The Lummi Nation’s 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 the Lummi Nation is not solely reliant on federal programs for accessing emergency funds, leaders were able to act more quickly to keep their people safe. In April, many tribes worried about how they would receive funding from a stimulus bill that provided $8 billion to tribal governments. And by June 2020, as COVID-19 brutally swept through Indian Country, these stimulus dollars still hadn’t been distributed to tribes and their citizens. As it historically happens, federal and state bureaucracy created barriers and slowed the distribution of “emergency” funds while tribal members faced their normal food, water, and health care shortages. The Lummi, however, were not put into a holding pattern, nor was their pandemic response as a nation dependent on these funds, signaling the power in building self-governance and determination.
While these two examples illustrate the potential of nations and communities to respond to crisis, individuals have also shown what Indigenous people are capable of when we reclaim our Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in the face of existential threats.
In northern Nevada, in Numu Territories, Autumn Harry put 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,” said 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 also for generations to come.
As 2020 progressed, in addition to evolving and expanding responses to COVID-19, Native communities also took on the responsibilities to usher in a new normal. In May, uprisings swept through the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota. This moment was a catalyst, uniting movements and communities to dismantle white supremacy, another toxic sickness that was only illuminated more by the pandemic.
By summer 2020, Native communities across the country were organizing to get out the Native vote. In the Navajo Nation, horse rides were organized to encourage those living rurally to get to the polls by any means necessary, and hotlines were created to share voting information in Navajo, Hopi, and Apache languages.
Personally, I had the distinct honor of creating the Sko Vote Den podcast, which explored the realities of voting across Indian Country through interviews with organizers, movement leaders, journalists, and researchers. This project addressed the nuances and gray areas of the Native vote as we dove into topics like how one can stand in their sovereignty as well as participate in the U.S. democratic process. I learned so much about the gaps and infrastructure needs when it comes to the Native vote and data on what really matters for Native voters—not to mention how voter suppression in Indian Country goes hand in hand with the social issues we face, like poverty, lack of access to technology or energy, language barriers, and so on.
Thanks to all the efforts to get out the vote in Indian Country, we voted in record-breaking numbers. In states like Arizona, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, the Native vote played a significant role in turning these once-red states blue, which, one could argue, made it possible for the Democrats to win the 2020 election. Let’s not forget, we did this during a deadly pandemic, despite our communities being hit worst by COVID-19, and despite a long history of both voter suppression and health care gaps. And we didn’t stop there. Just a month after the elections, our people advocated on social media and organized to pressure the Biden transition team to nominate the first-ever Native American to lead the Department of the Interior. Now, Rep. Deb Haaland is the first-ever Native American to hold this position or hold a seat in the President’s Cabinet.
My dear friend Julian Brave NoiseCat often writes about how Native peoples have already survived apocalypse: We survived germ warfare. At multiple moments in history, we’ve survived the U.S. Army killing our food systems: the bison, the sheep. We’ve survived being removed from everything we knew, displacement, boarding schools, and concentration camps that were meant to exterminate us. Native peoples are more than resilient: We have overcome some of the most tremendous oppressions. Many of us have healed or are healing, and, in doing so, we have cultivated creativity, fearlessness, and unwavering determination. No matter what the challenge is, what the crisis is, these will be the characteristics, the traits, the blood memories we will bring into our futures to build regenerative solutions for our communities.
This excerpt from New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, and Climate Crisis, edited by Alastair Lee Bitsóí and Brooke Larsen (Torrey House Press, 2021) appears with permission of the publisher.
Jade Begay is Diné and Tesuque Pueblo of New Mexico. Jade is a filmmaker, communications and narrative strategist, and Indigenous rights and climate activist. Jade has partnered with organizations like Resource Media, United Nations Universal Access Project, 350.org, Indigenous Environmental Network, Bioneers, Indigenous Climate Action, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, Allied Media Projects. Jade also worked with tribal nations from the Arctic to the Amazon to create multimedia, develop strategies, and build storytelling campaigns to mobilize and increase engagement around issues like climate change, Indigenous self-determination, environmental justice, and narrative change. Jade is the Climate Justice Campaign Director at NDN Collective.