Last April, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Toby Patrick hosted an Easter Day Root Feast at his home on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He knew there could be repercussions.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation had postponed its own annual Root Feast, a large celebration of traditional foods, to limit the spread of COVID-19. But Patrick didn’t want to let the important time of year go unmarked. More than two dozen members of Patrick’s family gathered on April 18, 2020, to celebrate the coming of spring by honoring First Foods, such as the couse root, also known as biscuitroot, and camas.
A photo of Patrick’s gathering posted online drew attention from the Confederated Tribes’ Incident Command Team, set up to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Tribal police said the feast violated COVID-19 stay-home and social-distance restrictions on the reservation. An officer from the Umatilla Tribal Police contacted Patrick, and the ensuing investigation led to citations for 17 adults at the celebration.
Patrick and his guests could have faced criminal penalties of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000 each. However, the charges were lowered to a civil citation, which, according to the tribal prosecutor, would not have been subject to jail time and carries with it a “significantly lower fine.”
When he appeared in Tribal Court, Patrick decided, as he put it, to “stand on the foods,” that is, to defend himself and the others using their traditional teachings. All 17 defendants pleaded not guilty at their arraignment last year, which set in motion the trial before a judge in March of this year.
At trial, Patrick argued that the cultural significance of the event at his home made it essential, and therefore not subject to the tribal government’s COVID-19 restrictions on “non-essential” gatherings.
"We just wanted people to take seriously being careful, being safe, and being healthy.” – N. Katherine Brigham, chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s Board of Trustees
Patrick, the only defendant called to testify, told the Umatilla Tribal Court that those gathering did “everything we could under the guidelines, but still be who we are and do what we’ve been taught.” He said the gathering was held “not to offend anybody, not to fight the government, or that we don’t believe in Coronavirus.”
Associate Judge Dave Gallaher agreed and acquitted the 17 men and women.
When the pandemic hit, tribal nations throughout Oregon put in place restrictions intended to limit the spread of COVID-19. Tribes are sovereign and can impose restrictions regardless of rules set by county and state governments. But the restrictions have resulted in a year’s loss of gathering for funerals, memorials, weddings, celebrations, and cultural events, including pow-wows, leaving many people feeling cut off from each other and from their traditions.
Thomas Morning Owl, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation who leads ceremonial events at Celilo Village on the Columbia River, said tribal governments’ reliance on social-distancing recommendations from the U.S. government doesn’t take into account the cultural needs of Native Americans.
“I feel that it’s been a steep learning curve for all communities within our tribal area that desire and want to continue with our traditional ways of practicing, and it is wrong to have non-Native-thinking people mandating and creating policy without regard to what tribal norms exist within each community,” he said.
Morning Owl, a fluent Umatilla speaker and interpreter, was critical of the decision to prosecute the Patricks.
“They were only following what they’ve been taught as unwritten law,” he said. “They were following the tradition given to them in the teachings of their elders.”
COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Native Americans. In the Pacific Northwest, the virus has stricken prominent leaders and elders. Tribal governments are left trying to balance the need to protect their citizens, including older culture bearers who are among the most at risk, and letting people practice their traditions.
Two days after the verdict in Patrick’s case, N. Katherine Brigham, chair of the Confederated Tribes’ Board of Trustees, speaking on her own and not for the full board, told the Confederated Umatilla Journal that the restrictions were never meant to punish people for their religious beliefs. Brigham said restrictions are necessary to protect against COVID-19, but the rules should be flexible enough to allow for limited participation in cultural and ceremonial gatherings.
“The resolution didn’t stop that. It just asked people to be careful of numbers,” Brigham told the newspaper. “We didn’t have a lot of information at the time, other than the need for social distancing, washing your hands, and wearing masks. We just wanted people to take seriously being careful, being safe, and being healthy.”
A Barrier to Healing
Wilson Wewa, a Longhouse leader and member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Tribal Council, believes the psychological trauma, particularly regarding restricted funerals, has led to an increase in vandalism, break-ins, and violence within households.
“When you don’t go to a funeral, it creates high anxiety,” said Wewa, who has worked many years in social services and public health. “Any time there is trauma, history will show an increase in addictions to drugs and alcohol, and an increase in violence within the family and the community.”
COVID-19 restrictions have limited the number of people who can attend funerals and has prohibited overnight Washat (Seven Drums) religious services, the traditional dressing ceremony, the community dinner, and the wake at the Longhouse.
“Families have lacked what we call the crying ceremony. That is time when families and friends can begin to heal,” said Armand Minthorn, a Longhouse leader as well as a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees. “Lots of families are still hurting today.”
At Warm Springs, Wewa is worried some young people are losing their connection to funeral traditions.
“Lacking part of those traditions is hurting us, as individuals, as families, and as a community,” he said. “I heard a comment by a younger person in Warm Springs who said, ‘I don’t know why we don’t have all of our funerals this way. We don’t have to go broke to buy food and giveaway stuff.’ I thought wow. This is going to impact the survival of our culture because the songs with the different aspects will disappear. ... It’s like endangering ourselves because we don’t have that sense of belonging, the sense of culture to protect us now and nurture us into the future.”
It is not only funeral services that have been curtailed. Lana Jack, a Celilo Village resident and activist, said that Native people are missing their weekly Washat services and First Foods celebrations that take place throughout the year.
Jack said Native people living along the Columbia River, perhaps even more than others who live on recognized reservations, are struggling in isolation. That’s in part because Jack’s Celilo Wy’am people are not federally recognized as a tribe and do not possess the same rights to hunt, fish, and gather.
Finding Ways to Adjust
COVID-19 arrived in Celilo, a 34-acre community that was for centuries a center of commerce for Native people, early in the pandemic. Construction of The Dalles dam in 1957 flooded the iconic Celilo Falls and forced the relocation of the village. Currently, about 80-90 permanent and temporary residents live in the relocated village on Interstate 84 east of The Dalles. Bobby Begay, a village leader well regarded across the region, died from COVID-19 complications in April of last year.
The community, Morning Owl said, is still struggling with “varying degrees of unfinished mourning.”
“They are waiting, though, for a time when we’ll all be able to gather and complete the whole process,” he said. He thinks memorials traditionally held one year after a loved one’s death will take on greater importance.
Wewa, too, is hopeful about memorials, envisioning a large community event once COVID-19 restrictions have eased.
“I think it would be nice if everybody that lost a family member could come together in the early morning and do a regular service, a giveaway and dinner,” said Wewa. “We would mention the people who have passed and that way there would be a sense of fulfillment of their traditional responsibilities.”
Residents had to find ways to practice their traditions while taking precautions against the pandemic. Early in April this year, many Columbia River people took part in a spring feast at a Longhouse in Lyle. Unlike events usually open to all, this one was just for the Native people who live nearby.
“Anybody from the outside can’t come in to help,” Jack said. “We are isolated families that live together and want to carry on our way of life, the teachings our mothers gave to us.”
Jack was unable to attend the Lyle gathering, choosing instead to host her own family members from Warm Springs who had not been together for more than a year.
In late March, two feasts were held at Warm Springs. People were served traditional foods in a buffet, rather than at tables where the different First Foods are typically placed and eaten in a particular order.
Also in March, Wewa was in Priest Rapids, Wash., where that village of perhaps 10 houses hosted a feast that filled the longhouse.
“There were signs at the door to wear gloves and masks at all times. There was an abundance of hand sanitizer and people took it seriously,” Wewa said.
“I could see people happy to see their friends and relatives,” he added. “Priest Rapids is a little village, and the feast gives them a sense of pride, taking care of people. Having visitors there, at least in my opinion, was an exhilarating experience for the village.”
At the end of April, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation held its Root Feast. A follow up celebration, including memorial, parade, and dances, scheduled for May was canceled after the tribal clinic recorded two COVID-19 cases.
“When we can congregate with each other in one place, there’s no better feeling than that,” Minthorn said.
He’s lost family members to COVID-19 and was unable to attend their funerals. Minthorn himself was “knocked down for a whole week” when he contracted the virus.
Yet, he said, “We’re so fortunate to be alive. In our hearts and minds we understand how important our own life is and realize we should take care of each other.” Being able to gather again, he said, is “going to be medicine for everybody. We need ceremonies to uplift us. It’s medicine to our heart and mind.”
Underscore is a nonprofit collaborative reporting team in Portland focused on investigative reporting and Indian Country coverage. We are supported by foundations, corporate sponsors and donor contributions. Follow Underscore on Facebook and Twitter.