An Indigenous perspective to COVID-19
Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate
“We are all related” is a piece of Indigenous wisdom that is embedded in our Tribal Nations since time immemorial. As the global pandemic of the COVID-19 virus reaches our homelands, our neighbors and our families in North America, we rely on our spiritual resilience and age-old traditional teachings to cope, help and heal.
Through an event on Facebook, there was a call for Indigenous peoples, pipe carriers, and ceremonial leaders to engage in a sunrise prayer ceremony wherever they were located on the morning of March 21. Many of us did so, to help bring the world in balance and to offer our voices to those who are grieving. We all will continue to do so.
With this pandemic, it brings to mind what our ancestors faced during the waves of illness and disease that devastated our communities documented as early as 1518 with the smallpox epidemic to various other epidemics including chickenpox, flu, tuberculosis, and measles to name a few.
With each wave of illness, we turned to our traditional healers and medicines. On a weekly basis, I have been making batches of cedar tea with maple syrup for my son and I. I have bitter root and Chaga on hand for tea as well. To keep our home safe, we smudge at least once a week. These practices are healing and bring a sense of peace as we carry on our cultural ways in this distressing time.
Kinship is at the heart of who we are as Indigenous peoples. Blending technology with our values is also a traditional practice. As Itancan Tatanka Iyotake (Chief Sitting Bull) said, “I have advised my people thus: when you find anything good in the white man’s road, pick it up; but when you find something bad, or that turns out bad, drop it, leave it alone.”
We use cell phones and the internet these days for texts, emails, and video calls to check in our relatives. As Indigenous people, we have always been adaptable in innovating and incorporating positive developments and rejecting proposals or actions that are not within our value systems, even if it takes some time to know the difference.
As humans are ordered to stay home, our relatives in nature have been flourishing. Smog is lifting and traffic is decreasing. One of the articles on the coronavirus, “Destroyed Habitat Creates Perfect Conditions for Coronavirus to Emerge” by John Vidal, discussed how stress has been placed on animals, birds, and other wildlife.
As this stress is expressed, possibly similar to how a human under stress may have a cold sore that opens up into the air, diseases pass more easily between wildlife and humans. By harming the homes of wildlife, the disease may spread as epidemics into human populations. Often it is through economic development projects that ecosystems and wildlife habitats are destroyed.
As Indigenous peoples, we have continued to advocate and stand up for our homelands, the waters, and the wildlife in our battles against development, oil and energy pipelines and contamination of the earth through mining, fracking, and other invasive technologies.
Recently, the federal judge overseeing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s ongoing fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has ruled that the permit process by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was inadequate through not preparing a sufficient Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). The litigation is about more than protecting the peoples of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, it is about enforcing processes to safeguard the environment as economic development projects continue throughout the United States.
The attorneys at Earth Justice represent Standing Rock in the litigation and are homing in on the lack of proper measures in place to face the potential devastation that an oil spill would cause.
In the book, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions by John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes, he prophesied that one day everyone will need to live like Indians. He meant that other cultures would need to respect the earth and her resources, realize that all of life is interconnected, and take seriously our responsibilities to each other and all that lives. We can and must do this now in terms of managing social distancing, considering home gardens, and placing human health before an emphasis on employment or increasing corporate wealth.
We are all related and we are responsible for each other in not spreading this latest coronavirus. Together in prayer, thought and an internet connection, we will survive and comfort one another as Indigenous peoples.
Remember that seven generations ago, our ancestors prayed us into life and we will continue to pray for the next seven generations to come.
Angelique W. EagleWoman, (Wambdi A. Was’teWinyan), is a law professor, legal scholar and has served as a pro tempore Tribal Judge in several Tribal Court systems. As a practicing lawyer, one of the highlights of her career was to serve as General Counsel for her own Tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton (Dakota) Oyate. She graduated from Stanford University with a BA in Political Science, received her Juris Doctor degree from the University of North Dakota School of Law with distinction, and her L.L.M. in American Indian and Indigenous Law with honors from the University of Tulsa College of Law. Follow her on Twitter @ProfEagleWoman