COVID-19 in Native American Communities: Pandemics, Colonialism and Cultural Genocide

By Rya Jetha (PO ’23)

An extreme public health crisis demands an extreme response from governments. Closing off borders, contact-tracing citizens, and limiting rights has proven necessary for flattening the curve. However, governments walk a fine line between enacting extreme measures to combat COVID-19 and using the public health crisis to consolidate authoritarian power. President Trump, for example, has used the pandemic to promote his personal policy interests. While his home state of New York was setting up industrial warehouses brimming with corpses waiting to be processed and mass buried, the Justice Department, headed by Trump ‘yes-man’ William Barr, asked Congress for powers to eliminate legal protections for asylum seekers and to detain people indefinitely without trial. While these powers were not granted, they reveal Trump and his administration’s intentions to use this pandemic to achieve their exclusionary, tyrannical goals. Trump himself has demonstrated a willingness to exacerbate the public health crisis, encouraging anti-lockdown protest movements and spreading misinformation at press briefings and on twitter. Less known and just as shameful has been the Trump administration’s efforts to hurt historically vulnerable communities, particularly Native Americans, who are spread across 567 sovereign tribal nations in the United States. 

A Pattern of Presidential Impropriety 

Trump’s disdain for Native Americans can be traced back to the 1990s, when Trump bankrolled a series of racist smear campaigns in New York opposing a new casino on St. Regis Mohawk tribal lands because he was afraid of his own casinos facing local competition. When Trump was elected president, he ignored the pleas of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe whose lands were being usurped for the Dakota Access oil pipeline and gave the green light for the project to proceed (Trump owns a stake in Energy Transfer Partners, the firm building the pipeline). And during the January 2019 government shutdown initiated by Trump to bully Congressional Democrats into paying for his border wall, Native Americans disproportionately suffered from police, welfare worker and doctor shortages. The Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, which is an area roughly the size of Houston was left with one police officer on patrol

So it is no surprise that Trump has done little to alleviate the stress on tribal governments whose lands have become COVID-19 hotspots. Research out of the University of California, Los Angeles suggests that COVID-19 infections on reservations are four times higher per 1,000 people than in other parts of the US. While New York, the state worst hit by COVID-19, has a rate of infection of 1,890 per 100,000, Navajo Nation has 2,680 cases per 100,000 people. Smaller tribes have reportedly been hit even worse, with the infection rate in the Pueblo of Zia at 3,319 per 100,000, which is ten times the rate of New Mexico where the tribe is situated. In addition to the human cost of COVID-19 in tribal communities, casino closures have crippled tribal economies. Just one example is the closure of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community casino in Michigan, which has resulted in monthly losses of $2 million. This means that the floodgates are wide open for COVID-19, with tribal governments having even less money to spend on police forces, public welfare projects, and healthcare. 

To make matters even worse, federal financial relief has been intentionally lethargic. When the federal government missed the April 26th deadline to distribute relief funds, tribal governments had to sue them to receive aid. They also had to sue the federal government for including for-profit Alaska corporations in the $8 billion relief package for tribal governments. All of these challenges have been faced by tribal governments against the backdrop of the Trump administration announcing in March that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe can no longer legally claim sovereignty over their land. Trump’s decision can be traced back to his self-serving, profiteering mindset — Providence Journal reported last year that the Mashpee Wampanoag casino “site is about 18 miles from Rhode Island, and the state’s politicians aren’t keen to have a new competitor go up against their two casinos, both of which are run by Twin River Worldwide Holdings, a public company with strong Trump ties.” While Trump selfishly puts his business interests before public welfare in the middle of a pandemic, it is important to note that Trump’s behaviour fits into a long pattern of historic neglect, violence and discrimination against Native Americans. 

Disease, An Old Foe 

Pandemics are central to the poverty cycle that Native Americans are trapped in. In fact, the history of disease in Native American communities offers insight into why they have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. History has traditionally focussed on “virgin soil epidemics,” meaning that European settlers unintentionally infected Native Americans with diseases like measles and smallpox that they had no previous exposure to. Because Europeans had immunity and Native Americans did not, the theory states that epidemics claimed the lives of at least 70 percent of Native populations in the Americas

Recently, however, scholars have developed a more complex understanding of how diseases decimated Native populations. While the “virgin soil epidemic” hypothesis focuses solely on biological differences in immunity between Native populations and European settlers, new research reveals that social conditions of war, raiding, forced movement, and the health consequences of violence and upheaval created easy pathways for diseases to flourish even after Native Communities had already been exposed to disease. 

The Indian Removal Act of 1830, which called for the relocation of Native peoples east of the Mississippi to “Indian Territory,” further demonstrates the role of adverse social conditions in enabling disease to thrive among Native communities. When the United States Army placed Cherokees in concentration camps with no clean water, improper shelter and insufficient food, 2,000 of the 16,000 Cherokees died of dysentery, whooping cough, measles, and “fevers”. When these same people were expelled from the concentration camps and forced to walk to Oklahoma, an additional 1,500 Cherokees died due to malnutrition and pathogens associated with social neglect. The result was 25% of Cherokees perishing by the time the tribe reached their new home. Other tribes who were forcibly expelled from their lands, such as the Sauks and Mesquakies, suffered losses of 85% of their populations by the time they reached Oklahoma. Native populations struggled to replace their lost populations, as poor social conditions gave rise to infant and maternal mortality and low fertility. These events demonstrate that the catastrophic loss of Native American life was not a result of simple biological difference, but the byproduct of violence, expulsion, and imposed circumstances of inhumanity by the US government. 

Today, just as in the 1800s, Native Americans are trapped in social conditions that invite disease. Just as the concentration camps used to detain Cherokees lacked clean water, 13 percent of Native American homes lack safe water compared to the national average of less than 1 percent, according to the National Institutes for Health. How can Native Americans follow guidelines to wash their hands regularly when they lack access to water? 

Just as Natives lived in inadequate shelter in the concentration camps, today 16 percent of Native American households are eight times more overcrowded than the national average. How can Native Americans social distance when their homes are small and multigenerational? 

On top of these circumstances, historical negligence has had a tangible effect on Native American health outcomes. Native populations are 600 times more likely to die of tuberculosis and nearly 200 times more likely to die of diabetes than other groups. They are more likely to suffer from hypertension, asthma, cancer, heart and cardiovascular disease — conditions that put them at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. And the Indian Health Service (IHS), a treaty obligation of the federal government to Native Americans in return for the vast tracts of land they gave up in the 1800s, is sorely underfunded. One report called Broken Promises: Continued Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans found that the federal government in 2017 spent $9,207 per person for federal health care nationally, but only $3,332 per person in the Indian Health Service. Unsurprisingly, the IHS is not prepared for COVID-19. The Ogala Sioux tribe has reported that Pine Ridge Hospital, run by IHS, has access to just 6 ventilators, 4 quarantine beds and 24 COVID-19 test kits for its 50,000 tribe members. 

The federal neglect of Native Americans and Trump’s challenges to tribal sovereignty serve as a reminder that the United States is not “postcolonial”. COVID-19 is already disproportionately killing Native people while the federal government stands on the sidelines creating challenges for Native economies, healthcare systems, and sovereignty. The cultural genocide initiated by European settlers continues today — as Native Americans die from COVID-19, oral histories, languages, and ancient cultures die along with them. COVID-19 isn’t just a pandemic for Native Americans. It is a fight against a long history of oppression and dispossession. 

Thank you to Izzy Davis for editing the piece! 

Leave a Reply