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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

In 2020, we covered many stories about heroes in Indian Country. 

If we could, Indian Country Today would honor millions of people for their heroism over the past year — just for carrying on, day to day, to maintain some semblance of normalcy amid a pandemic and a faltering economy.

Here, we name a few whose experiences caught the attention of our readers. Each one represents countless others who worked to help their people:

1. Everyday heroes

Here’s a tip of the hat to you.

At home, people made masks or kept an eye out for elders and neighbors. And what about the people who taught at the kitchen table and helped their kids with online learning?

Many did their duty and got counted in the Census and exercised their right to vote. Some spoke out against injustice, or made hard choices and took the heat for the safety of their people.

— Indian Country year in review: Major moments
Indigenous candidates made history in 2020

Some ran for office, and even if they didn’t win, helped educate the public about the issues Indian Country faces. Others sat through long meetings and drew from reserves of patience, perseverance and kindness to resolve thorny problems.

At the start of the pandemic, everyone quickly recognized the important work of health care providers. But as time went on, the list of essential workers grew to include many other categories of workers.

Native Americans gained courage from the knowledge that their people had survived an earlier pandemic, and more. With their ancestors as role models, people pitched in to help one another.

2. Health care workers

Cherokee Nation citizen Tim King receives a COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 17. (Photo courtesy of Cherokee Nation)

To doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, researchers and cleaners wielding disinfectant — to all health care workers — we send our heartfelt appreciation for your long hours and days of work, your expertise and your dedication to healing.

Congress has left the Indian Health Service chronically underfunded. So when the pandemic hit, many care providers were working at outdated, ill-equipped and understaffed facilities not up to the task of providing the level care so many people need.

“When people here get sick, they get really sick,” said Angel Wilson, a nurse practitioner at the Rosebud Hospital on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. “The level of suffering is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”

As a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Wilson knows most of the people she cares for.

“I cry at work,” said Wilson. Beds were full and nursing staff was limited, adding to the long hours, extra shifts and stress of those doing what they could to save lives.

Related: 'Level of suffering is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before

3. Other essential workers


Despite the personal risk of contracting COVID-19, Native American people went to work to produce, process and deliver food, fuel and electricity, and to keep up systems necessary for modern life — clean water, transportation, electricity, internet access and telephones.

Native truck drivers across the U.S. worked long hours and took extra precautions to stay well while keeping semis full of goods rolling across the country.

When Ornell Wilson, Diné, gets home from a long truck-driving shift, she tells her children to go to their rooms. She immediately sprays her shoes with disinfectant, puts her clothes in the washer and takes a shower. After getting dressed again, she can finally hug her kids.

“Usually they run up on me and hug me the second I get home. It breaks my heart that I have to tell them, ‘Hold on, don’t touch me yet.’”

Wilson and other Native truck drivers say they’ve also seen some positive changes tied to the pandemic, like less traffic and more acts of kindness from strangers.

Related: New life of a trucker: Less traffic. More hours. And so much kindness

4. Defenders of the sacred

Pictured: Land Defenders taking a stand in the Black Hills, in their ancestral homelands, on July 3 2020 at Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota. Behind the banner, Nick Tilsen is 3rd from right.

In July, treaty defenders held a protest around President Donald Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore. It wasn’t an anti-Trump rally, though.

Rather, it was to protest the unlawful taking of the Black Hills in violation of the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868. The treaty guaranteed the Lakota and Oglala Sioux, Cheyenne, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples’ continued access to the sacred Black Hills, an area tribal citizens still visit to gather medicine and rejuvenate and replenish themselves.

Despite a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the United States had unlawfully taken the land, it was not returned to its rightful owners. The federal government offered cash. The tribes are not willing to sell their sacred lands.

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Fifteen defenders were arrested July 3. But the treatment of Nick Tilsen, human rights defender of the Oglala-Lakȟóta Sioux Nation and president of the Indigenous-led NDN Collective, has caught the attention of the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the rights of Indigenous people.

While other defenders faced misdemeanor charges, Tilsen was accused of a total of seven charges, including felony charges of second-degree robbery, simple assault on two public officers and obstructing a public officer, which could lead to more than ten years in prison. Some believe he was targeted.

Tilsen gets another tip of the hat for his work with the NDN Collective, which keeps Native values at the core of its work to defend, develop and decolonize. The nonprofit has raised $57 million since 2018. Some of that money will go to “community-led and Indigenous-led efforts to find sustainable solutions to address climate change in their community, along with defending their lands against the fossil fuel industry,” said Tilsen

Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument (Photo by R. Scott Jones, courtesy of Creative Commons)

Another sacred area that is threatened, this one with looting, vandalism and desecration, is in Utah. The Bears Ears National Monument has an estimated 100,000 archeological sites, ruins, and artifacts, many of them sacred to tribes in the area. The monument is also a popular outdoor recreation -- it hosted 400,000 visitors in 2019.

Tribes and others have dedicated years of effort to protect the area named after twin buttes. President Obama designated 1.4 million acres as a national monument in 2016. President Trump undid that by reducing it to 202,000 acres, or by 85 percent -- the first ever monument reduction of that magnitude. Supporters of the monument are regrouping to persuade the Biden administration to reinstate the acreage.

— Deb Haaland faces momentous questions at Interior
— Million-dollar campaign launched to protect Bears Ears
— Treaty defender: Rally was about rights, not Trump
— Lakotas to Donald Trump: 'You are not welcome here'
— Treaty defenders block road leading to Mount Rushmore
— UN experts raise concern over charges against US indigenous leader and rights defender
— America 'called out' to re-examine white supremacy at Mount Rushmore
— Today in Native History: American Indian Movement Occupies Mount Rushmore 

5. LGBTQ candidates

In this Monday, June 8, 2020, file photo, Assemblyman Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, gives a thumbs-up as he asks lawmakers to approve his measure to increase mental health funding for the homeless, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Gloria, a gay state legislator, is a leading contender in the race to become mayor. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Several LGBTQ people ran for office this year. 

Openly gay Native Americans who won high office or were the first to break a barrier include Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, who was reelected in November. 

Mayor-elect Todd Gloria, Tlingit, of San Diego, is the first Native American elected as mayor of one of the nation’s top eight most populous cities. 

Alicia Mousseau, Oglala Sioux, is believed to be the first openly gay candidate elected to serve on her tribe's executive council. And Stephanie Byers, Chickasaw, became the first transgender woman elected to the Kansas Legislature when she won her race for State House District 86.

— Sharice Davids: 'Honor of a lifetime'
— Tlingit man elected mayor of San Diego
— A 'monumental first' for the Oglala Sioux
— Native candidates score in legislative, other bids 

6. Aaron Yazzie: Engineering to Mars and back

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How often does one get asked to make a fail-safe device that will perform perfectly on Mars after a 250-million-mile trip through outer space? NASA engineer Aaron Yazzie, Navajo, was asked to design a device that monitors atmospheric pressure on the Red Planet. He came up with a Mars lander pressure inlet that traveled to and from Mars in 2018. His next project is to build a tool to drill rocks and collect samples on Mars.

Yazzie, 33, credits his success to the mentorship he received through the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. He’s been a member since high school.

NASA currently has 21 Native American employees. When asked what they share in common, Yazzie laughed. “Well, to be honest, the biggest thing that we talk about is outreach and giving back to the Native community."

— NASA's next generation of Natives: After the moon it's the 2020 Mission to Mars
— Aaron Yazzie's 'stuff on Mars' — again!
— NASA's next Mars rover is brawniest and brainiest one yet
— Pop culture artists team with educators for Native lessons

7. Minneapolis protectors, donors, advocates 


After George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed on May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis, protestors took to that city’s streets. While most were peaceful, some looted, vandalized and set fire to businesses. The Native community didn’t look to the police to protect and serve during the unrest. They turned to the American Indian Movement, or AIM.

Dozens of AIM and tribal members turned out to patrol a south Minneapolis neighborhood. They stood guard over Migizi Communications, a radio, TV, and social media youth training facility. But it caught fire from a nearby building and was destroyed.

The next day, an army of volunteers showed up to clean up. And within days, donations poured in from around the world. The city of Minneapolis and other organizations donated space so summer training courses could continue.

Donations reached more than $2 million, and Migizi is now beginning the process of buying a new building and getting set up again with the digital cameras, computers, sound equipment and recording studios, used for the Native American youth job training

Thirty Twin Cities-area Native organizations also came together to write and release a scathing public letter condemning Floyd's death. The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors Group denounced "ongoing and systemic racist ideologies" at the Minneapolis Police Department.

— In Minneapolis it's AIM that serves and protects
— Modern-day AIM makes its presence felt
— Fire during Minneapolis riots guts Native youth nonprofit
— 'Incredible' generosity for Minneapolis Native youth nonprofit after fire
— Minneapolis Natives condemn man's death in custody, 'racist ideologies' 

8. Leadership: Emergency response

red diesel

When COVID-19 began infiltrating the country, tribal leaders rose to meet the challenge.

The Blackfeet Indian Nation’s COVID-19 Incident Commander Robert DesRosier, Blackfeet, said, “we have one objective ... and that's to protect human lives” from an unseen enemy.

“We closed the tribe. We closed the community. We issued a stay-at-home order,” DesRosier said. “We're using hand sanitizer at every business. Mandatory for Blackfeet Nation: all residents wear masks.” The tribe closed roads, which hurt small businesses dependent on visitor traffic through the reservation. Other tribes closed their main sources of income, casinos.

The Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux tribes set up checkpoints to allow only residents and essential workers to enter tribal lands.

South Dakota Go. Kristi Noem responded with orders to take down the checkpoints. She escalated matters by sending affidavits from a state investigation, videos and other materials to the White House, Justice Department, Interior Department and the state’s congressional delegation.

Tribal leaders stood firm as the governor disputed their sovereign right to protect their citizens.

Like these stories? Support our work with a $5 or $10 contribution today. Contribute to the nonprofit Indian Country Today.

Native leaders of some of the hardest-hit tribes also stepped up: the White Mountain Apache, Mississippi Choctaw and Navajo Nation.

White Mountain Apache Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood said her tribe imposed some of the strictest measures anywhere, with penalties for noncompliance. For instance, people could not leave home except for an emergency or if they had employer documentation to prove they were an essential worker.

When fearsome monsters appear in the Navajo hero twins tale, “we were taught that we have weapons and we have the armor to combat these monsters,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said. The tribe incorporated characters and symbols from the ancient myth into a public health campaign that helped turn the crisis around. 

Mississippi Band of Choctaw of Indians Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben, meanwhile, said his tribe had to push people away from tradition. “To all of a sudden go from what all we know [are] our cultural and social practices of being together in the loss of a loved one, being able to come together and mourn and pray and cry together, and to be able to have that healing, that was something that we had to change and unfortunately go to only graveside services.”

As the pandemic continued month after month, Chairman Devon Boyer of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes said, “It's hard to look through a dark sky and see some light, but we know it's there.”

— Traditions carry Natives through COVID — and create risks
— Acting early, swiftly against COVID-19
— Protesters threaten Indigenous Seattle council member
— COVID-19-free tribal nations
— Two pueblos have some of the highest infection rates in US
— South Dakota governor calls on Trump in tribal checkpoint feud
— Two pueblos have some of the highest infection rates in US

9. Protectors of the Earth

File photo: Wendsler Nosie, Sr. speaks with Apache activists in a rally to save Oak Flat, land near Superior, Ariz., sacred to Western Apache tribes, in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 22, 2015. The land sits on top of a large copper deposit and Resolution Copper Mine enlisted the help of Sen. John McCain. McCain, R-Arz., who attached a provision into a defense bill in December 2014 that transferred 2,400 acres of federal land to them in exchange for 5,300 acres of land owned by the company. McCain heralded the bill as a compromise that protects 800 acres of sacred land along Apache Leap, allows access to Oak Flats campgrounds and requires the mine to undergo an Environmental Impact Statement before it receives the land. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Youth have been taking a stand to address climate change, asking adults to hold officials accountable, and to support changes to promote renewable energy and reduce the use of fossil fuels. And they’ve spoken out for protection of specific places.

Naelyn Pike, Chiricahua Apache, is a youth organizer for Apache Stronghold. In March, she and others are advocating for protection of an area in Arizona with copper reserves. They want to maintain the connection Apache tribes have had to Oak Flat for centuries, “one that continues today and will continue into the future,” Pike said.

Urging Congress to adopt a bill that would repeal a requirement for the U.S. Forest Service to convey 2,422 acres to a copper company, in March Pike said, "Today Congress has the opportunity to uphold the treaty and trust responsibility to the Native people and to tell foreign mining companies our land is not for sale. My culture is not for sale. My religion is not for sale. My people and my future is not for sale.”

Essau Sinnock, Inupiaq, lives in Shishmaref, Alaska, which for ages had been protected by the sea ice that formed reliably in October. Now the ice forms more briefly or not at all. Without the ice, the village is getting battered and washed away by powerful storms. The villagers are desperately trying to get funding to move to solid ground before their homes are destroyed.

The thought of losing your home to rising sea level, storm surges, and flooding is stressful and scary, said Sinnok. “Climate change is not just a political issue to me,” he said. "It's my lifestyle. It’s what I face every day back at home.”

He and other youth have appealed a lawsuit against the state of Alaska to the Alaska Supreme Court. They oppose the state’s policy of promoting oil and gas development.

— Alaska Supreme Court hears oral arguments in kids' climate change lawsuit
— Climate change as art; 'My culture is beautiful ... I'm glad I am Yupik'
— The trend is clear: Climate change is impacting Alaska now
— Doubling down on Native values
— Climate change stokes military challenges in Alaska
— Oak Flat is the 'worst mining project I have ever encountered'
— Protecting Oak Flat, Mount Graham

10. Women in leadership

Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, received one of the two Woman of the Year Awards at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

A who’s who list of Native American women attended the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C., in February. Among other nations, they represented the Pawnee, Blackfeet, Ute, Tlingit and Wampanoag.

Renowned and experienced leaders of tribal nations, members of Congress, high-level government officials and holders of statewide office — many of them the first women ever to hold their respective positions — were there to honor two Native leaders with woman-of-the-year awards.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, chief research officer at the Seattle Indian Health Board and director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, was honored for her research and reports on missing and murdered Indigenous women and family members.

Stephanie Bryan, Poarch Creek, tribal chair and CEO for the Poarch Creek Indians, was honored for her work for the Poarch Creek, and leadership in organizations such as the National Indian Gaming Commission and the United South and Eastern Tribes.

Also in the category of Native women in leadership, we have a story about Sarah S. Channing, the first female chief of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation.

— Native aunties: ‘We’re going to take back the country’
— Seneca-Cayuga Nation elects its first female chief

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today and a longtime Alaska journalist.

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