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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The messaging has been clear: Stay home. Remain apart. Social distance.

But what if that means people are slipping into seclusion?

Isolation and loneliness are linked to poor health, disease, and early death. Behavioral health specialists say a strong social network helps people stay steady, and to cope with and bounce back from hard times.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, is director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, and chief research officer at the Seattle Indian Health Board. She would prefer people think of social distancing as physical distancing.

“When you say social distancing, it often feels more like it's isolating. Like you're going to be alone and you're kind of taking things from each other, like the ability to be social,” she said recently. “And as Native people we value our ability to be in relationships with each other, to spend time with one another.”

“What I would love for Indian country to think about social distancing not as being apart but making choices because we love our communities so much,” Echo-Hawk said. “We care about our elders so much,” that we’ll use Facetime, text them, and drop off groceries on their porch with a gloved hand, but not “go in and interact with them because I love them so much that I want to see them six months from now.

“And the same with our youth,” she said. “I care about the next generation so much. I don't want them to get ill. I don't want them to get sick. And I don't want to give them the opportunity to accidentally pass this virus to one of our elders that could possibly die from it …”

Echo-Hawk said, in Indian Country, “this is where our heart is, in caring for one another.”

Tony Skrelunas, Navajo, has a son and two daughters, young adults, living with him. He said he wants them to stay in good spirits, eat healthy food and get exercise. He said because his kids are older, he worries, “there's definitely potential for them to go into unhealthy behaviors” with drugs and alcohol.”

He’s making sure to check in with them and see how they’re doing. “We really encourage each other. They say to me also to not be out socializing, to be home,” Skrelunas said.

He bought weights, mats, exercise bands and even a punching bag because he and his kids are all “gym rats.” And he’s trying to be creative, “like starting a little fire outside saying, ‘Hey, what shall we cook? Can we all cook together? Can somebody take the leadership in cooking this week? Let's make it fun. Let's eat outside. Let's watch a movie together.’ I'm making sure that we go hiking together.” Skrelunas said pets add enjoyment too.

He said he recently met with a medicine man to talk about spirituality and to pick up herbs. Skrelunas burns sage, and “I do our traditional chanting, prayers, every morning, being that role model for them [his children].

He’s also looking into teachings about how the Navajo overcame challenges in the past. Skrelunas said, “we have all these stories about going through different worlds and moving our communities and migrating and dealing with all kinds of hardships and diseases and warfare, drought.”

He said the Navajo came together. “We have elders and medicine people and the knowledge holders that would come together and talk about just the issue of the times and come up with some recommendations. I think those kinds of things are really needed” for this world we’re going through.

Paloma Flores, Pit River Nation, Madesi band, is program coordinator for the San Francisco unified school district Indian education program.

She said three youth programs in the city have joined forces to create a virtual Native community school, which just started this week. Staff meet with students over the internet weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The students picked the class subjects: cooking, sewing, art -- and their Indigenous cultures.

“Many of our children here in San Francisco have wanted to learn about their origin stories, their creation stories. They want to know who they are. Who they are is more important than what you need to know [academically] because who you are will give you a reason then to care ‘why should I learn about that,’” Flores said.

“For such as myself as a California Indian person, not knowing those other stories, I've known that it's crucial to bring in a representative from that nation. So when we hear that students want to learn about themselves … we have to provide that,” Flores said.

Right from the first weeks of social distancing, she said one of the most common themes she and her colleagues “heard from our students is, 'I feel alone. I've never felt this alone in my life.’”

Flores said, “I am concerned as a youth worker, as an educator and as an auntie to many of these students ... if we remain disconnected from one another and are not able to pull them in, the outcome is dire.”

She said it’s hard to build a sense of being part of a Native American community while living in a city. “We know as Native peoples in this urban area we need to find each other. The belonging is crucial. We know that.”

The Native American community “in this urban environment in San Francisco has already experienced this type of isolation when they came up from the relocation program,” Flores said.

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“So I believe [the knowledge is] in these generations, these grandparents who know the importance of having and being around others in the community, the strength that comes from community and ultimately the resources that can be found when we're not supported in the way we need by our city, by our government,” she said.

Flores said in addition to handling the hardships related to the pandemic, Native Americans also “are carrying the torch of social justice. Many of you know about the Alcatraz occupation but many don't know about the fight that's happening right now in fighting for visibility,” she said. “And those who are carrying on the fight are the young people in the same spirit of that occupancy of Alcatraz. So I'm excited about what's coming out of this time … We are still here.”

KJ Warbey is clinical director of employee and community support for Southcentral Foundation, a nonprofit Alaska Native health care provider based in Anchorage. With schools and businesses shut down, and money running low, people may be overcome with anger, sadness, or worry. She said symptoms of already existing anxiety or depression may worsen.

To help children understand the pandemic and avoid anxiety, Worbey said it’s important for parents to be able to talk with them about what's going on, and to speak at the developmental level appropriate for their ages.

With adolescents, “one of the things that happens developmentally when you become a teenager is so much more of your social support is outside of the home. And for teenagers who are unable to meet with their peer groups right now, it can be extremely hard on them,” Worbey said. “And even though they're connecting maybe by text or maybe by phone, it's not the same as hanging out with your buddies.”

Worbey said she's read discussions about how this generation of young adults may be deeply impacted by the pandemic’s effects. “Think about a college graduate or a high school graduate about to kind of enter into the next steps of adulthood in a period where there has been so much disruption. [It’s] really difficult for them in so many ways -- personal, economic, educational.”

As for adults, she said, “I have talked to a number of parents who really have been feeling so terribly isolated and overwhelmed with the challenges that they're facing. They're at home and ... if they are working, they're trying to work, juggle raising up their family, juggle school work, and dealing with whatever the child or the youth is going through.”

For all age groups it helps to talk, listen, and be heard, and to learn one is not alone in facing difficulties and fears. People feel supported when others acknowledge and validate what’s going on and the losses they’re feeling, Worbey said.

To know if social isolation is becoming a problem, Worbey said to keep a watch out for signs. “One would be that you're unable to continue to structure your day. You're unable to identify purposeful things or what you're going to do.

“So if the days are unstructured and a person is feeling really adrift, alone, maybe not getting out, not eating well or looking after themselves well, that would be a time that it would be important to reach out to other people. And we can reach out to other people in so many ways.” She said talking on the phone, connecting on a virtual platform for an exercise class, and getting outdoors all help, as do practicing gratitude and meditating.

“Those all are things that I would recommend and to be very deliberate right now about good mental health and mental hygiene,” Worbey said.

She said keeping up a daily routine is beneficial. “It helps people feel like they know what is going to happen. It helps people have something to look forward to, an established predictability or a goal.” She suggested people also pay attention to how much news they consume, because the news can be frightening.

And she wants people to be aware of national helplines available for support (shown below).

Normally, many Native Americans have family, friends -- a community -- that pull them to be with others. They’re invited, expected, or urged to get together for feasts, give-aways or potlatches, and honoring ceremonies. Now, people need to find new ways to connect with others.

Worbey shared some tips from an Indian Health Service webinar for health care providers on cultural resilience. In addition to phone calls and teleconferences with friends and relatives, the presenters suggested people join online activities such as cultural and language classes, and beading and regalia-making groups. Check out online live music, story-telling sessions, church services and choirs, and social distance Pow Wows.

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill phone 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or visit

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone 1-800-273-8255 or visit

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

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