Native News Pick of the Month: COVID-19’s Toll on Elders and The Perspective of One Indigenous Man

This month, PWNA vice president of programs Rafael Tapia Jr. offers his thoughts on our February ‘Native News Pick of the Month’: Indigenous Americans dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white Americans via The Guardian

Commentary:

Imagine more than 66 million Americans dying in the past 10 months. Imagine the heartache, fear, trauma and devastation this has produced. Imagine all the relatives, friends and citizens no longer with us or there to care for their loved ones, provide for their families or serve their communities. Imagine the deep void this left us with and a level of grieving unknown in our lifetime.

We’ve shared before about the impact of losing Native American Elders. Ancestral knowledge is still passed on through our Elders in the form of oral traditions, mentoring and sharing of life experience. Elders transfer our cultural knowledge to the younger generations. Yet every day, COVID-19 is taking our Elders at higher rates than ever – and with them ancestral knowledge we may never regain.

My tribe, the Pascua Yaqui, has ceremonial celebrations for life and death. Death ceremonies celebrate the passage to the next journey, a return to the life source from which we all come, a destiny we are all born with and should embrace as part of life. Still, it is heartbreaking that so many Elders are dying prematurely from COVID-19 and taking with them their precious ancestral knowledge.

The pandemic death toll for Native Americans is staggering. Nationwide, one in every 475 Native Americans has died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, compared with one in every 825 white Americans and one in every 645 Black Americans, according to analysis by APM Research Lab (as mentioned in The Guardian’s exclusive story). Native Americans have suffered 211 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 121 white Americans per 100,000. Communities in Mississippi, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas have been hit the hardest. (My own tribe has lost approximately 2 percent of our citizens to COVID-19.) And the true Native death toll is undoubtedly higher as Native data is often patchy or non-existent in federal, state and local reports.

The odds were stacked against Native Americans before COVID-19 brought its devastation to our communities. A staggering 23 percent of Natives were already food insecure and 40 percent of reservation housing was substandard or overcrowded with several generations in a small home. Additionally, Native Americans already faced a disproportionate rate of chronic health issues, including the highest rate of diabetes in the world.

Is this our lot as Native peoples? To be burdened with disease and the ills of the world? Why is it not our lot to reap the windfalls brought by wealth and power that so many other groups enjoy? The answer lies in how the events of our country’s history have impacted Indigenous people, from first contact until today.

The conditions that make Indigenous people more vulnerable were established long before the pandemic reached our shores. Native Americans are the poorest, the sickest and the lowest in educational attainment in America. We may well soon be completely extinct, just like other tribes that once prospered on this continent. And yet, for the Indigenous tribes still struggling to hold onto life, have we not qualified to be on the endangered species list?

COVID-19 is a wake-up call for Native peoples. Let us not be lulled into complacency by poverty, sickness and the myriad distractions of the outside world. Let us rise together and fight COVID-19 by holding on to what we have, what we believe in and what we must do to preserve our ways. We as Native peoples have been here before and we will continue to find reason to celebrate life – and death.

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