Opinion: Native American history places tribal towns at risk of ‘second smallpox’
If there’s one thing that has changed life for all of us in 2020, it’s COVID-19. But for some of the smallest communities of Montana, the Native American reservation communities, it has led to some seriously dire realities.
I got curious about how, and why, COVID-19 is impacting Native Americans differently than the rest of the population. I have heard that Native Americans in Montana have higher death rates from COVID-19 than the non-native population. At the same time, I have heard that some people in mainstream society, even some close relatives in my own family, are referring to the coronavirus as a hoax or a conspiracy.
Wendy Bremner is a Blackfeet woman who works as a Victim Specialist on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana. She said that in Browning, where she lives and works, “Our people have been on a stay at home order for much of 2020, which greatly impacts our people and their mental health, but we are mostly okay with it because we know it is necessary.” The stores there have required mask wearing and have been taking people’s temperatures ever since March.
I can recall that March was when the pandemic first reached Montana and many workers were ordered to stay home, businesses and schools closed down. After that, many people in the state have been sent home from work. Once the shutdown hit Montana, for many of the jobs that can’t be easily switched to doing the work virtually (meaning online on the internet), the workers were laid off or lost their jobs completely.
Since then, many offices and businesses throughout the state have brought back their workers and opened up again using new operating rules about masks, group sizes and capacities, and social distancing. But in Browning, “most of our businesses are either shut down or curbside service only. We are used to high unemployment rates but it is way worse right now.”
But in my mind, even more alarming than the unemployment, is the death rate that many Native American communities are experiencing here in Montana. Wendy says, “We have experienced too many deaths - 35 so far from a small community.”
This fact weighs heavy on the people, and they are reminded of it frequently by the noise of the helicopters that fly daily overhead in Browning. The helicopters fly to the Indian Health Service hospital, and are there to transport critically ill COVID-19 patients to the regional hospitals. There is also an awareness that there are many community members who aren’t in the hospital but are facing some serious symptoms of the virus in their homes.
“We have many families sick at home who are scared and suffering,” Wendy says.
Lawrence Jace Killsback is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, residing in the town of Busby on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. Jace works as a Cultural Health Consultant, and he currently works on developing COVID-19 Safety Policies, Plans and Trainings for Native Organizations and other Tribal programs in Montana.
Having earned a master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Montana, Jace has now created a training program for reopening offices, conducted hazard assessments, and has reviewed policies related to COVID-19.
For Jace, the virus got too personal for him also, when his mother and sister tested positive for COVID. His mother had to be hospitalized. “She fought it off, and with prayer and some Cheyenne remedies she recovered but still has some fatigue and coughing. On our rez we lost over 35 tribal members and they were mostly elders who took our language, histories and ceremonies with them. It was a major loss to the tribe. We even had young men die with our youngest being 33 and 45 years old.”
Historically, Native American communities have experienced some pandemics where many of their people perished. The COVID-19 pandemic draws comparisons with the small pox pandemics that many Tribes endured throughout the United States. Now, Native Americans in Montana are experiencing higher and disproportionate rates of death, when compared to the non-native Montana population.
“Statistically this is a fact,” Wendy says. “On my reservation, if we were following national averages, we should have 11 deaths for the 1100 cases we have had; but instead we have 35, or 3 times the rate. We were more aware of how death can impact a community for generations because our people were nearly wiped out by the pandemic of small pox in the 1800s.”
She adds, “Sadly, there was a vaccine available when our people died, but a government official chose not to vaccinate the Missouri River tribes, which caused 2/3 of our people to die.”
Now that there are COVID-19 vaccines being administered, we must not let history repeat itself in terms of the distribution of vaccines. Native Americans, as a vulnerable population, should get access to the vaccines as soon as they possibly can.
In a recent Facebook post, Senator Jon Tester recognized, "It's critical that our Native communities have the resources they need to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed swiftly, equitably, and with the confidence of public health experts." I appreciate that he is "keeping folks in Indian Country front and center when it comes to a distribution plan."
Jace draws the comparisons with small pox. “This is the second coming of ‘small pox’ which wiped out bands of our people and other tribes as well. European colonization and genocide were aided by the spread of their diseases that they already had centuries of immunity for.” Jace highlights the disproportionate numbers for COVID among the Tribal communities. “Natives in Montana make up only 7% of the state’s population, yet we make up 20% of the COVID-19 cases, and sadly 30% of the deaths in the state.”
Why are Native Americans in Montana experiencing a higher death rate from COVID-19? Wendy believes that “it's related not to our genetics, but our history and how it has resulted in poverty, poor access to preventative health care and poor diet. Our people because of this have higher levels of obesity, diabetes and hypertension, which are all correlated with severe COVID-19 symptoms, hospitalization and death.”
How have the local Tribal leaders responded to the COVID-19 pandemic? Wendy said, “Our tribal leaders had protecting our people from death as their main focus, and took protective measures based on science. They exercised sovereignty to do so. Our governor is good to tribes and supported them in their decision making. The tribal leaders did the best they could.”
When I asked her about her perspective on how the national leaders handled the pandemic, she said, “The national leaders passed the buck to state leaders who passed it to community leaders. Our president caused it to be a politically divided issue that has resulted in half the country refusing to follow health guidelines, resulting in high numbers of cases, death and lengthier lockdown.”
Jace also sees that “it’s a very political atmosphere in our state and there is division where there needs to be unity.” There needs to be more trust in science and research for ways to prevent COVID-19. “CDC guidelines should not be politicized,” he adds, and “Montana leaders should trust health care professionals and take their recommendations seriously.”
The Blackfeet elders, the Northern Cheyenne elders, and all of the tribal elders and tribal people in this state and beyond, deserve help from all of us. They deserve our help, to find ways to support, strengthen, and protect their communities, their cultures, and their people from further trauma and suffering from diseases, death, poverty, pandemics, and outright genocide that they’ve endured in the past. Read about the history.
Much of the history of European colonization of Native North America is honestly horrific. By and large, it is glossed over or completely omitted from the history textbooks our schools use to teach kids. Dig a little deeper into history. What you’ll find is that it isn’t pretty. But it’s the context and background we need to have first in order to understand our present reality. These are the facts we must face. Today, we must face the facts of this pandemic.
What is something each of us can do to help? We can educate ourselves. It’s not a conspiracy or fake news; it’s history. We are making history right now, by living in this pandemic. Read about the past history, understand the science and the cultural landscape, and then have some understanding and compassion about the current tribal communities.
What is something else each of us can do to help? We can stay home and not socialize in person until this pandemic is behind us. Come on, Montana. Let’s all do our part to help all of our communities get through this. Stay home, save lives.