Support Native Veterans During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Americans Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest representation in the U.S. armed forces, according to the Department of Defense, but few outside of the Native and military communities are aware of their significant contributions. To put it to numbers, there are roughly 31,000 active duty Native American servicemen and women and 140,000 living Native veterans, according to a 2017 survey.

History of Native American Veterans

Native Americans play an important role in U.S. military success. During World War II, a group of Native soldiers now known as the Navajo Code Talkers used their Native language to develop a secret communication code used during the conflict – it was never deciphered by enemies and is often credited for helping to win the war. The Code Talkers are still recognized for their dedication and bravery every August 14th on National Navajo Code Talkers Day. Beyond World War II, Native Americans continued to enlist in the military and roughly 42,000 served in the Vietnam War.

The Struggle for Health Care

Despite their service and sacrifice, Native American veterans have struggled with receiving proper healthcare after returning home, especially those who rely on the Indian Health Service (IHS). And if treated at urban IHS facilities, they generally aren’t eligible for reimbursement through the Affordable Care Act.

During this critical time of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Native American veterans are in need of quality health care. Many of them fall within populations that are more at-risk of complications from COVID-19, whether due to age or underlying health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease or respiratory illness.

Fortunately, there was recent traction on Capitol Hill toward passing a bipartisan bill that will help these urban vets who are not currently receiving aid for IHS services. The bill, Health Care Access for Urban Native Veterans Act (H.R.4135), would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for veterans care at urban IHS centers. H.R.4135 received markups in March and is now ready to be introduced to the House of Representatives.

Support Native Veterans

In the meantime, the Native American Veterans Association provides support to Native veterans and posts important resources related to COVID-19 safety recommendations and resources. In a random survey, half of PWNA’s tribal partners reported serving veterans in their communities, including for COVID-19 relief. The National Native American Veterans Memorial is also currently accepting donations for the development of its memorial to honor Native veterans, which is set to be developed in Washington, D.C.

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America Needs Non-Profits Now More Than Ever

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the country to a crawl. Lawmakers and consumers alike are rightly worried about the economic security of shuttered bars, restaurants, and retail locations. But many have largely ignored the nation’s charities.

COVID-19 has the potential to devastate non-profit organizations, which provide essential services to vulnerable populations, fund biomedical research, support education, and employ millions of Americans. Social distancing and donor uncertainty prevent these organizations from hosting crucial fundraisers and food drives, recruiting volunteers, and in some cases delivering their services to those in need.

Led by United Way and the YMCA, a group of non-profits has asked Congress for emergency funding. These funds will help maintain vital services and protect a vital pillar of our economy. As lawmakers consider the impact of the pandemic, they can’t ignore these critical organizations.

COVID-19 has disrupted the nation’s non-profits just when many citizens need them most. The American Red Cross – which provides 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply – has had to cancel 7,000 blood drives since March 1st, resulting in 200,000 lost donations. Such a severe shortage of blood puts lives at risk. Hospitals need a constant flow of donations to treat cancer patients, trauma victims, and others.

Many of the 3.3 million Americans who recently filed for unemployment will soon turn to The Salvation Army for food, shelter, and financial assistance. But COVID-19 has forced The Salvation Army to close many of its donation centers and retail stores.

Feeding America has seen a “sharp decline” in volunteers. The organization is one of many hunger relief organizations scrambling to retain staff and keep their shelves stocked in the face of a sinking economy. Seattle-based Food Lifeline has gone from 18,000 to 20 volunteers, just as it expects demand for its services to double. The organization no longer has the capacity to sort food donations and has resorted to purchasing pre-packaged boxes of food.

COVID-19 has also dealt a severe blow to America’s cancer research non-profits. The Lymphoma Research Foundation has postponed all in person programs events, including free patient and professional education programs and fundraising events, at least until this summer, to protect the patients who attend these events and who are at higher risk for severe complications from the novel coronavirus.

With hospitals canceling non-essential visits, cancer patients will rely on organizations like the Lymphoma Research Foundation to provide information about how to manage their disease. And since cancer patients are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, they’ll look to non-profit organizations like LRF for support and ways to stay healthy throughout the pandemic.

Finally, Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) provides essential services for those living on remote reservations. Native Americans are extremely susceptible to COVID-19 due to overcrowded housing, higher rates of diabetes and respiratory illness, and limited healthcare options. Nearly 50 percent of grandparents raise their grandchildren, putting themselves at risk of contracting the virus. And tribal communities often live in food deserts. The Navajo Nation, for instance, spans three states and has only 13 grocery stores.

PWNA, one of the largest non-profits serving Indian Country, is still making critical deliveries of food, water, sanitizer, toilet paper and other essentials to hundreds of tribal communities, even those with travel restrictions and shelter in place orders. But as COVID-19 increases demand, PWNA’s warehouse supplies are running low.

By providing emergency funds to non-profit organizations, Congress could help the economy as well as vulnerable Americans. Over 1 million charitable non-profits employ more than 12 million people in the United States and contribute $1 trillion to the economy each year. Sustaining these groups through our present crisis will help lessen the economic turmoil wrought by COVID-19.

Lawmakers are right to provide economic relief to shuttered shops and restaurants. But they also need to assist the soup kitchens, social service organizations, cancer research foundations, and other groups that will support vulnerable Americans throughout the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond. Now more than ever, we need our non-profits.

About Christina Kazhe, PWNA Chairman of the Board

Christina Kazhe specializes in protecting the interests of Native American such as tribal sovereignty, legal and public policy and federal recognition. Founder of The Kazhe Law Group, she holds a Juris Doctor from Boalt School of Law at UC Berkeley and a Bachelor’s in Human Development and Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. Christina is a member of the Navajo Nation and affiliate to the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

About Michael Werner

Michael Werner serves as Chair of the Lymphoma Research Foundation’s Board of Directors and is a lymphoma survivor.  He is the Founder and CEO of Chicago-based Home Experience, LLC, a digital and services company enhancing the home ownership experience.  Werner is the former President and CEO of Globe Union Group, Inc., and is a long-standing Board member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

About the Lymphoma Research Foundation

The Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) is the nation’s largest non-profit organization devoted exclusively to funding innovative lymphoma research and serving the lymphoma community through a comprehensive series of education programs, outreach initiatives and patient services.  To date, LRF has awarded more than $62 million in lymphoma-specific research. To learn more about LRF, visit

About Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA)

PWNA is a nonprofit championing hope for a brighter future for Native Americans living on remote and impoverished reservations. Now in its 30th year, PWNA collaborates with reservation programs to serve immediate needs and support long-term solutions for strong, self-sufficient Native American communities, annually improving the lives of 250,000 tribal citizens. Follow PWNA on Facebook or visit

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COVID-19: Maintaining Animal Welfare in Indian Country

Communities in Indian Country are continuing to address their own unique challenges in combatting the coronavirus. While access to basics like food and health care remain the most critical focus, it’s also important to address other concerns such as animal welfare. 

Many reservation communities are overpopulated with stray animals. In the Navajo Nation alone, its estimated there may be upward of 6,000 stray dogs and cats roaming the reservation. This can lead to hungry and injured animals and human health risks, including animal bites, rabies and the spread of diseases.

Reservation Animal Rescue (RAR), a program of PWNA, provides animal welfare services to support partners who rescue, rehabilitate and place injured or stray animals in foster or forever homes. Our RAR partners receive support in various ways, including:

  • Grants to support low-cost spaying and neutering by veterinarians
  • Food and foster care kits for local rescue groups and families fostering pets
  • Incentive products to support education around proper care of animals

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), coronaviruses can cause illness in people and certain types of animals – and coronaviruses that infect animals can sometimes be spread to people. In the case of COVID-19, the first infections were linked to a live animal market overseas, but the disease is now spreading person to person. The first case of any animal testing positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. was a tiger at a New York City zoo. But the CDC notes, “We do not have evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19 to people or that they might be a source of infection in the United States.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is working to support the veterinary community during the COVID-19 crisis. AVMA agrees, “It appears that dogs and cats are not readily infected with SARS-CoV-2…” However, they suggest that “until more is known about this virus, if you are ill with COVID-19 you should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just as you would restrict your contact with other people.” AVMA also suggests having a 14-day store of pet food and medicine on hand in case of quarantine in homes or animal shelters.

Injured and stray animals of the reservations don’t know anything about COVID-19, but they are still hungry and in need of shelter. Unfortunately, the supplies we need to deliver to animal care groups across the Northern Plains and Southwest reservations are extremely limited right now. Donations to RAR are critical to ensure continued aid to everyone in the communities we serve, including our four-legged friends. Please consider making a donation to RAR today.

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Mother’s Day: A Native Mother Who Broke the Cycle of Poverty through Education

Motherhood can inspire us to do things outside our comfort zone and help us aspire to achieve goals we may have thought were unattainable. For Wetalu Rodriguez, a citizen of the Nez Perce tribe and past recipient of PWNA’s American Indian Education Fund (AIEF) scholarship, motherhood “propelled” her to break her family’s cycle of poverty. 

“I decided to pursue my education after giving birth to my first daughter, Jaxcee. Prior to having her, I was simply existing…but motherhood propelled me to accomplish higher education as I wanted to set a great example for her and demonstrate what determination and resiliency looks like,” said Wetalu. “In the beginning, she was my biggest motivation and I had to really hold myself accountable to fulfill the goals I set out to accomplish.”

Pursuing a post-secondary education and parenting is a delicate balancing act where actions speak louder than words. For Wetalu, achieving her goals meant “late-night study sessions with open books” and “giving my undivided attention on assignments and homework.” But the task was daunting, especially for Jaxcee. “I managed to keep her spirits light by designating family time and study time. I am fortunate she observed my labor as a college student,” said Wetalu.

Wetalu is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and she recognizes and appreciates the value of those late nights and hard work. “My education has opened more doors for opportunities, networking and skills-building. I have engaged in conferences, training and speaking events that brought self-development and growth. Through my educational journey, I’ve gained the experience and confidence to recognize my qualifications and alleviate the fear of failure or unwillingness to try something new.”

Wetalu’s degree, along with the confidence she gained in pursuing her education, allowed her the opportunity to become financial self-sufficient. After graduating, she became an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for the Nez Perce tribe’s Wapaayatat “Serve” project, as well as a volunteer for the Nimiipuu Community Development Fund, which helps Native individuals achieve financial independence. 

“As an Indigenous woman and mother who attained a higher education, I have a story that needs to be heard to inspire the next person in line,” said Wetala. “My ability to be financially self-sufficient is more attainable” and it’s positively impacting her and her daughter’s lives. “I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to receive help from the American Indian Education Fund.”

Like most others, Wetalu is currently learning to adjust to life in a global pandemic. The stay-at-home orders and social-distancing measures implemented in her community meant having to adapt very quickly. “This unforeseen online transition has taught resilience, self-love, self-confidence and productivity in dark times,” said Wetalu. “As a VISTA volunteer, I am extremely grateful to have a cohort that allows us to work from home. This type of understanding demonstrates that as a volunteer, I matter.”  While at home, Wetalu is embracing cultural preservation and quality mother-daughter time with Jaxcee.

Wetalu and Jaxcee, thank you so much for inspiring mothers and students everywhere – your story has been heard! Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers who are paving a brighter future for their children.

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A Look at the Impact of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation

The Navajo Nation – the largest reservation in the country – is greatly distressed in the fight against the global coronavirus pandemic, as reported by Time. The Navajo Nation has more than 1,300 confirmed cases on the reservation and counting. However, there are only four inpatient hospitals, all of them operated by the Indian Health Service (I.H.S.) in Chinle (Arizona) and Crownpoint, Shiprock and Gallup (New Mexico) with just 222 beds – not nearly enough to accommodate the 175,000 residents living on the reservation.

The Navajo Reservation has seven I.H.S. outpatient clinics and five part-time health stations. But some I.H.S. facilities are understaffed by as much as 45 percent. The Navajo Nation also operates four health facilities in Arizona (Fort Defiance, Winslow, Tuba City and Ganado) and one in Utah (Montezuma Creek), the largest of which has 73 beds.

Community Spread on the Navajo Nation

Several factors explain why the Navajo Nation is experiencing such a rapid spread of positive cases. Navajo families tend to house multiple generations under one roof, therefore putting everyone in the house at greater risk of contracting the virus, especially Elders. As it is, many of the Elders are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 on account of the high prevalence of chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Further escalating the issue is the fact that roughly 40 percent of Navajo residents have no access to running water, making it difficult to follow federally recommended handwashing guidelines to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Navajo Leaders In Action

In an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 on the reservation, Navajo President Jonathan Nez issued a stay-at-home order in late March, including a nightly curfew that requires residents to stay home between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. every day. This month, Nez took further measures and issued a 57-hour weekend curfew, ordering people to stay home from Friday, April 10 at 8 p.m. until Monday, April 13 at 5 a.m. in hopes of curbing the spread over the Easter holiday weekend. Checkpoints were set up for enforcement and the mandate will be extended until the first weekend of May. Violators who do not follow the mandate could face up to 30 days in jail or a fine of $1,000, or both.

PWNA partner Alberta Begay at the Cove Chapter Senior Services Center in Arizona had to temporarily halt their congregate meals, which are typically served to Elders five days a week. Instead, they and other senior centers with good vehicles are now home-delivering meals to the Elders. Alberta shared, “some Elders were shocked to hear they had to stay at home, and we still get calls asking if they can come by the center yet.” She tells them staying at home is to ensure their safety and the safety of the other Elders. The Cove Senior Center has been a PWNA partner for 10 years.

How to Help

Although tribal leaders are taking aggressive steps to fight the spread of the virus within the Navajo community, there is still much that can be done to aid residents who have limited access to food, water and medical care. There are only 13 grocery stores on the reservation and the Navajo Nation Council is conducting food distributions but the lines are more than five miles long in a single day, according to

PWNA is assisting the Navajo and other reservation communities impacted across the Southwest, as well as tribes in the Northern Pains like Pine Ridge, Standing Rock and Northern Cheyenne. Please consider donating to the PWNA COVID-19 Tribal Emergency Fund and spreading the word to friends and family about the need to assist the Navajo and other tribes during this critical time – every contribution helps in the fight against COVID-19.

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COVID-19 Shines a Light on the Digital Divide in Indian Country

While we are all seeing the impacts of COVID-19 to Indian Country as they relate to availability of food, water, health care and other necessities, I have been watching the impact from another angle too – the digital perspective. Events like this shine a light on inadequacies, inefficiencies and gaps in service. They can also be used for change and improvement.

The digital divide in Indian Country is on par with all the other areas of critical infrastructure, food insecurity and economic development that continue to leave Native communities behind. At the first Lakota Food Summit in South Dakota earlier this year, one of the speakers put up a map of reservations. They also put up a map of food deserts. Not coincidentally, these two maps nearly overlapped perfectly when they were put on top of one another. I would contend that the tribal colleges in Indian Country would also be in proximity to the areas with highest need for food, economic opportunity and education.

It is not a complete shock to me that Native communities are in this predicament with the digital divide or that the federal government has allocated significant funding to improve the situation. What is clearly lacking, however, is the knowledge, skills and ability to get it done. This is not small potatoes. It would take dozens of MOUs, MOAs, approval from municipalities and lengthy legal reviews to accomplish the task.

The Northern Tier Network Consortium is essentially a merry band of Internet “nerds” from colleges throughout the northern corridor of the U.S., where most of the tribal colleges are located. Other groups such as the Sun Corridor Network, Albuquerque Giga PoP and Great Plains Network are all nonprofit consortiums that run the internet. They have the means, access and knowledge to make digital connection across Indian Country a reality, and honestly, I’ve never met a better group of people that truly believe in the principle of “everyone rises together.”   

Significant efforts would need to be undertaken to advance the ball on this initiative, but I think it’s entirely possible. Coordinating with tribal colleges to outfit their universities to serve as the backbone for an all-Native access network would skyrocket them into the digital age. The universities can become the data-centers for their tribes – housing all their critical documents, language preservation, research and historical information in one location. Monumental task? Absolutely. Achievable? Definitely.

The fact is, doing this would be a complete overhaul, from the fingertips to the cloud. User equipment, servers/switches, racks in the closets, networking equipment and fiber lines would all need to be improved. Some colleges and tribes would succeed while others would fail, but that does not make the initiative unworthy. There are so many stories of tribal community members pulling into parking lots of their tribal college or administration office to log into the free Wi-Fi because they live in a digital desert, like those maps I mentioned.

Unfortunately, what the COVID-19 crisis has shown is that tribal colleges are woefully unprepared, even more so than elementary schools in urban communities, to seamlessly move their operations to an online environment like many mainstream universities have been able to do.

Today, distance learning is not readily available to all tribal college students, nor is virtual meeting capacity or capability. The mapping of inequities throughout Indian Country has many layers that span food deserts, access to running water, economic opportunity, health disparities and technology. Crossing the digital divide after COVID-19 and enacting the Tribal Digital Divide Act can help change one of these layers.

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Native Food Sovereignty in the Wanblee Community

Native American communities have long struggled with access to fresh, healthy foods. Now more than ever, access to these foods is critical – particularly during the global pandemic impacting us all. Monica Terkildsen, a member of the Wanblee Community Action Team (CAT), shared her experience as a Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) collaborator while underscoring the importance of food sovereignty and preparedness for emergencies such as this unprecedented time. Her full written comments may be found on Great Nonprofits.

Wanblee is located on the northeast corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “There are approximately 2,500 residents and about 92 jobs… about 50 of them are held by non-community members. We have a high unemployment rate, high rate of poverty, food insecurity – and land loss is well known amongst our residents.” 

The Wanblee CAT members help increase family self-resilience and improve their community through capability building. The partnership between PWNA and Wanblee CAT began several years ago. “Ms. Phyllis Swift Hawk, GED Educator with Oglala Lakota College hosted [a meeting] and was addressing safety and preparedness for the community.” CAT submitted a subsequent grant application for food preservation and preparation that was funded by PWNA. These collaborative efforts brought forth a training on making traditional plant balm with adults and youth. “The partnership began to have ripple effects as more partners were brought forward. We began providing communities with seeds and hosting presentations on natural plants and medicines.”

Wanblee CAT and PWNA were then able to expand their trainings through the support of Newman’s Own Foundation. “We hosted a cooking class and learned from a local [Native] chef [brought in by PWNA] how to cook… cut meats and prepare healthy foods.” Methods of food preservation such as dehydration and canning were presented. “Ultimately, we were approved to purchase a freeze dryer…one of only two freeze dryers on the reservation – answering many of our local needs. We also planted a garden at the college center… and prepared fresh green beans for the youth.” Some of these students commented on how “they had never tasted anything so fresh.”

This year, community members attended the 2nd Annual Native Youth Food Sovereignty Summit in the Black Hills. Native youth were provided many opportunities to interact with one another while learning traditional ecological knowledge. “We [Phyllis and Monica] were able to present on a lot of the local plants/medicines that are available to us.” The youth were very fortunate that PWNA recognized the value in community history and indigenous knowledge.”

Monica shares her positive support of PWNA as her community journeys toward food security. Their future hopes: “to grow thousands of pounds of vegetables” and create a community cellar to serve three seasonal purposes – an underground greenhouse…a storm shelter…and a food storage area.”

“We look forward to a continued partnership that allows us to dream, to be food secure and to recognize our own indigenous knowledge and ensure our community has this knowledge in the future. Thank you, Partnership With Native Americans!”

For more information on PWNA’s food and emergency relief programs, please visit our website, or help Native American communities who are in need of food supplies during this pandemic by making a donation to our COVID-19 response fund.

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Recently in Native News

The entire country turned its focus on combatting the COVID-19 global pandemic this month, including Native American communities. We’re sharing the most important updates from March, as well as a few additional headlines from Indian Country. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and stay up to date with the latest headlines all year long.

As a coronavirus pandemic sweeps the world, American Indian communities turn to one another, teachings via The Seattle Times

  • “Tribal communities know death by pandemic. As history threatens to repeat itself with the menace of the novel coronavirus, tribal communities are turning to their teachings and one another to protect themselves amid what they call a near total failure of federal resources to help, despite solemn promises in treaties. No one is waiting in these communities for someone else to come to the rescue. Response to the threat of the virus by tribal governments and health care providers has been swift and aggressive. Tribal governments are sovereign in their territory, with broad emergency powers — and they are using them.”

Tribes take measures to slow spread of new coronavirus via ABC News

  • “Sharon Bahe has made her home on the Navajo Nation a refuge, placing cedar branches and burning sage to help purify the space and praying for protection for herself and her children home from boarding school and a toddler with severe asthma. Her community of about 500 in northern Arizona has become a hot spot for the new coronavirus, with several cases confirmed. While other kids play outside, she tells hers they can’t ‘until the virus goes away.’ Officials on the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation, on Friday broadened a stay-at-home order from Chilchinbeto to the entire reservation: No visitors in, and residents can’t leave their homes except for essential tasks, including to get food and medical supplies.”

Exclusive: Emergency coronavirus funds for American Indian health stalled via Politico

  • “The Trump administration has held up $40 million in emergency aid Congress approved earlier this month to help American Indians combat the coronavirus — a delay that’s left tribal leaders across the nation frustrated and ill-equipped to respond to the fast-growing outbreak. The funding has languished in bureaucratic limbo for weeks, despite increasingly urgent pleas from tribal organizations desperate to stockpile essential supplies and keep health clinics operational. Federally run American Indian health facilities are well short on hospital beds and ventilators, some frontline clinics received fewer than a dozen coronavirus tests, and federal officials have already signaled there will be little in the way of reinforcements — telling tribal leaders that all they can send right now are expired respirators.”

Native American tribes brace for coronavirus: ‘It’s going to be a test’ via NBC News

  • “The normal sound of students shuffling through the hall has been replaced by silence at Marty Indian School, a kindergarten to grade 12 facility on the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s reservation in South Dakota. Following in the footsteps of other school officials across the country, Superintendent John Beheler said the decision was made to close Marty Indian on Thursday and Friday ahead of this week’s spring break. It comes after an Indian Health Service patient in Charles Mix County, where the school and reservation are, tested positive Wednesday for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, health officials said. An Indian Health Service official said the person had traveled to a conference in the United States, and others who came into contact with the patient were being tested as well.”

Why Native people ‘need to count’ in the 2020 census via Crosscut

  • “When Ramona Bennett became a member of the Puyallup Tribal Council in 1968, she wanted to see change. The tribe had no health clinic, no school, no large source of income like the casino they currently own. They didn’t even own their cemetery. ‘This tribe literally had nothing,’ she recalled. At the time, the Puyallup Tribe was down to about 170 enrolled members, a stark contrast to the more than 5,000 it has today. ‘We had no services, none whatsoever, and no recognized rights,’ said Bennett, who wanted the tribe to have a clinic and a school. Both required money it didn’t have, so she set out to apply for grants. That, she soon realized, was an issue in itself.”

Native American Winemaker Tara Gomez Is Making History via The Daily Beast

  • “For the last 15,000 years, members of the Chumash Indian tribe have lived in California on land they believed was given to them by the gods. Their original territory ran from Malibu to Monterey until settlers crammed them onto a sliver of property, a 127-acre reservation near Santa Barbara. Today, the area is more well-known for its wines rather than the history of the Chumash people, but that might soon change. Tara Gomez is a spirited woman with a vivacious chuckle that often peppers her sentences. Her father was a Chumash tribal elder and her mother is from the Pueblo tribe in Arizona. She is the only certified Native American winemaker in the country and produces wines with her tribe at their Camp 4 Vineyards.”

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Impact of COVID-19 on Native Culture and Ceremonies

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted communities around the world, including those in Indian Country. We are watching it unfold day after day – health systems, economies and industries are in various states of unraveling, crashing or being over-run and quarantines are becoming commonplace as nations attempt to contain the “invisible enemy.” These isolation measures have been extended to churches and other places of worship to curb congregations of 10 or more people and the idea of having “packed churches” by Easter Sunday seems more like a dream than reality.

This situation has given me pause to reflect…how will COVID-19 impact tribal ceremonies? With more than 570 sovereign nations in the U.S., there are many solutions and even more opinions. So, I asked several tribal members how their community will be dealing with the fallout as we enter Spring.

I first spoke with a member of my own tribe, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. He is a childhood friend and holds a special place in our religious community. Spring is the most important ceremony of the year for us and more like a New Year’s than December 31st. Spring is the time for new life, getting out of the darkness and cold of winter to start a new cycle of planting, animals awakening and hunting.

Spring also brings the thunderstorms that help clear away the pain and sickness previously endured for a fresh beginning. Other spring and summertime ceremonies include Naming and Memorial Day services, specific songs are sung, prayers are prayed and Elders gather to ensure traditions are “done in a good way” (carried on correctly). They provide oversight and tease us with stories about our own childhood or our parents’ follies. This is a generally consistent theme throughout Indian Country, albeit different in the details.

But not this year – not this spring and not in our community. My tribe has cancelled Spring Dance and other tribes are evaluating this as well. The risk of “community spread” to our Elders is just too high. Our Elders – the fluent speakers of our language, wisdom keepers of our traditions and storytellers for our future– are entirely too valuable to expose to this “invisible enemy.”

I also spoke with a tribal member from a ceremonial society in the Southwest, and he shared the same concerns. In his community, announcements and changes are coming daily. Their community is wrestling with ways to carry-on their cultural ceremonial responsibilities without compromising the health and safety of their members. They are brainstorming on ways to have a scaled-back version of ceremony, incorporating social distancing measures to their practices or foregoing altogether.

There is no “one size fits all” solution for tribes at this unprecedented time. But one thing is for certain: this virus has no regard for skin color or socio-economic status and can decimate entire communities – and do so quickly. Our ancestors likely never envisioned anything like ceremonies at a distance, but what’s important today is that we keep our unity and traditions alive in our hearts and minds as we await the renewal Spring always brings.

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