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COVID-19 is killing indigenous elders and indigenous knowledge

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American Indian and Alaska Native elders are history teachers for indigenous communities. They carry with them the knowledge and traditions that get passed down from generation to generation.  

They teach us to be proud, humble and respectful and the importance of humor and celebration in spite of the hardships they suffered. They teach us the importance of fighting for what is rightfully ours. 

They remind us of who we were to help us understand who we are today and prepare us to be good ancestors for the next generations. Their presence reminds us that we are resilient.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage Native communities, we bury another elder and, with them, we bury another story, another song or another prayer. Often, this happens before it can be passed down. 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that the incidence and mortality rates for American Indians and Alaska Natives was 3.5 and 1.8 times higher than that of non-Hispanic whites.

The most common question I am asked by non-indigenous groups is why is this happening?

I could tell them about the inequities in public health funding and infrastructure. I could tell them that the poor access to medical care, education, housing, clean water, healthy foods and traditional medicines are major contributors.

But it is also my responsibility to tell them that structurally racist policies and practices exist.

The disproportionate impacts that COVID-19 is having on Native communities is not an accident; it is the product of hundreds of years meant to erase my ancestors then, me now and my sons in the future.

The settlers saw our ancestors as inferior and, as such, Native Americans needed to assimilate to white society or risk disappearing. We were regarded as what they called the “Indian Problem.” Under the Dawes Act, the United States removed us from our traditional lands and took our Native children away from their families and cultures. They forced our ancestors into boarding schools where they could no longer speak their languages or practice their cultures. Their motto was “kill the Indian, and save the man.”

But the United States failed in their mission to erase us.

A phrase that we use in our community today that reminds us of our resilience, “I am the wildest dreams of my ancestors.”

Today, Native people — whether from reservations, rural areas or urban cities — are fighting to change the systems that have harmed us for centuries and that are harming us right now during this pandemic. We demand justice.

There is a lot that government and health agencies can learn from tribes and urban Indian health programs, especially around the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Indian Country is leading in COVID-19 vaccine distribution due to our tribes exercising their sovereignty and the community-based approaches we have used to prepare and respond.

A recent study from the Urban Indian Health Institute, where I serve as director, reinforced what we already knew. Seventy-four percent of Native people surveyed were willing to get vaccinated because of their cultural responsibility to protect elders and next generation. These are the teachings the elders instilled in us — our responsibility is to our community. This public health understanding can increase adherence to COVID-19 safety measures, including masking, social distancing and vaccinations. 

But to truly understand the impact of this virus, we need better data to work from. States are doing a poor job of tracking and reporting COVID-19 data for American Indians and Alaska Natives and other people of color. A recent study showed that current data on vaccinations is missing 48 percent of race and ethnicity data. They need to be held accountable to improving their practices if we are to ever achieve data-driven decision making for allocation of resources to end this pandemic. We can no longer be invisible in the data.

We need to ensure that indigenous communities and trusted messengers are included in the creation and distribution of COVID-19 vaccine educational materials.

The Biden administration needs to work collaboratively with Congress to properly fund the Indian Health Service and ensure our tribal and urban Indian communities have the necessary resources, including vaccines, testing and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Without the right funding, resources, data, our elders and cultures will continue to be unjustly at risk. Our ancestors left us a legacy of resilience and resistance as they took action to preserve our cultures and traditions. We follow in their footsteps. Now is the time for this country to listen.

Abigail Echo-Hawk is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation. She is the chief research officer of Seattle Indian Health Board and director of its research division, Urban Indian Health Institute.

Tags COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccine indigenous communities Indigenous lands Indigenous people Joe Biden Native American tribal lands

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