As Native peoples self-isolate, outsiders are still demanding in

For over 500 years Native communities have battled colonial invaders and foreign disease – and now we face coronavirus.

As virus kills Navajos in their homes, tribal women provide lifeline
Relief worker Kim Smith helps another volunteer load supplies at a farm used as a base for aid to Navajo families quarantined due to COVID-19 in Hogback, Shiprock, New Mexico [Andrew Hay/Reuters]

Indigenous communities of the western hemisphere have been fighting for survival since Christopher Columbus washed up on our shores in 1492. You have likely heard the tale. We were subjected to genocide. One facet of our annihilation was contagion introduced by European invaders with poor hygiene.

When Columbus first arrived, there were about 250,000 Native peoples living in Hispaniola, where he landed. Along with Christianity, the transatlantic slave trade and seething avarice, Columbus brought with him infectious diseases like diphtheria, measles, cholera, typhus and smallpox.

Within 25 years, 95 percent of the Indigenous population there had been wiped out by these scourges, leaving just 14,000 who would be subjugated, tortured, trafficked and massacred by the self-proclaimed discoverer of the “New World” and his men. All told, it is estimated that about 55 million people Indigenous to the Americas eventually died due to the spread of these foreign diseases.

Some Natives, like myself, maintain that the genocide of Indigenous people continues to this day, manifesting in a variety of ways. Imposed poverty, environmental racism, police violence, the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and the theft of our lands, resources and children are just a few examples of how the Indian wars never ended.

Disease still threatens our existence, too. In the United States, Natives are twice as likely as whites to develop Type 2 diabetes and our sustained oppression is the primary cause of it. When Natives were forced onto reservations we were no longer allowed to hunt, gather and consume the diet nor get the exercise that kept our ancestors fit and healthy. We were expected to live on rations high in sugar and starches that directly contribute to diabetes. Impoverished reservations are also commonly located in food deserts – meaning healthy options are still lacking. 

But now we have a new plague. The novel coronavirus. Be it by reason or blood memory, Indigenous communities were immediately alarmed by it. Sure, we have been down this road before. Our populations were decimated by diseases we had no immunity to. It was not just that, though. We knew we were not prepared for it and we do not have the resources to properly combat it. Even though the federal government has a duty to provide Tribes with treaty-promised healthcare, their system is chronically underfunded and consistently fails us. COVID-19 attacks the lungs, and the Indian Health Service has only 81 ventilators for roughly three million Tribal members scattered throughout the country. With diabetics more vulnerable to complications from it, Native communities are especially susceptible. And with the elderly, those who keep our Native languages, more likely to die from it, the loss for Native people will be grave.

We were right to be concerned. COVID-19 is ravaging the Navajo Nation.

It has become apparent by the actions (or inactions) of settler governments that we are on our own. As a result, Tribes are taking it upon themselves to protect their people. One thing we can do is isolate.

In my ancestral homelands, Tribes like the Oglala Lakota and Cheyenne River Lakota have begun closely monitoring their borders, to prohibit outsiders from roaming their lands and potentially introducing COVID-19 to their territories. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala, is currently on mandatory lockdown for 14 days after a non-Native employee of a school on the reservation travelled, reportedly despite recently imposed travel restrictions and tested positive for the virus upon returning. The Tribal Council was so upset by this that they banished the individual from the Reservation.

An unforeseen consequence of Indigenous communities’ self-imposed isolation has been, once again, witnessing the ugly reality of the colonial mindset and that it is still very much alive.

The Hoopa Valley Tribe of California sought to do what others like the Oglala and Cheyenne River are doing and monitor traffic through their territory along a local highway. It led to a clash with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office over jurisdiction. Hoopa Valley stood on Tribal sovereignty and were able to reach an agreement where the Sheriff will not interfere with Tribal police requiring non-residents on the highway to leave their lands.

If there is anything settlers hate, it is being told that they are not allowed to trespass on Indigenous land. First Nations communities in Ontario and Quebec are saying that despite directives to stay home, non-Natives from urban areas continue to flood their lands seeking gasoline, cigarettes and cannabis, putting their people at risk for a COVID-19 outbreak.

In Old Crow, Yukon, a rural arctic community with just 250 people, two settlers from Quebec showed up uninvited amid the pandemic expecting jobs and housing. Old Crow is fly-in only, has extremely limited resources, and asked people not to come there due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. The chief of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation said they strolled off the plane “like cartoon characters”. The pair made no attempt to self-isolate even though Yukon required visitors to do so for 14 days after arrival, endangering everyone in town.

Indigenous communities to the south are equally in danger. COVID-19 has reached the Tribes of the Amazon, already killing several, including a 15-year-old boy. The virus is being carried to remote areas of the rainforest by invading miners and loggers.

Extractive industries building pipelines through Indigenous lands continue to work against the express wishes of those Indigenous, with the support of the government, which has exempted them from following instructions to lockdown and self-isolate to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Much like the disease-carrying priests who accompanied Columbus, Christian missionaries determined to convert Indigenous tribespeople bought a helicopter with the intention of using it to force themselves into the ancestral lands of Indigenous in the Amazon while the global pandemic rages. Experts warn that Indigenous of the Amazon are highly vulnerable to common illnesses like the flu, and COVID-19 could lead to their extinction.

It is a travesty that in 2020, more than 500 years since the arrival of Columbus, Indigenous are still fighting for survival on all fronts. Colonial invaders who may carry the novel coronavirus and force themselves upon us also have a wasicu disease of the mind – they are consumed by ego, conquest, greed and apathy.

Thankfully, we have not lost our way. It has been foretold. Like our ancestors, we will persevere.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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