COVID-19 is threatening some Indigenous tribes with extinction

Daniel R. Wildcat

It is now time to launch our own tribal nation-to-nation assistance programs to our distant relatives of Amazonia in their time of desperate need

Ms. Miryam Yataco
Dr. Daniel Wildcat

Deep in the environmental lungs of our planet, Amazonia, the COVID-19, or coronavirus is devastating and literally threatening some Indigenous peoples with extinction.

History is once again repeating itself as this disease pandemic hits our southern hemisphere relatives, e.g., the Shipibo-Konibo, Matsés, Awajun, Urarina, Achuar, Quichua, Isconahua, Kukama, Tikuna, to name a few, in this part of the world.

And while the reporting of this human tragedy is difficult given the remoteness of many tribes in this region, what we know through Reuters wire service, Iñigo Maneiro Labayen, who shared information on the topics below, and a host of on-the-ground non-governmental organizations like CAAAP is tragic.

According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), there are around 20 thousand Indigenous people with coronavirus in the Amazon. They have warned the nation-states of the "disproportionate" impact of the pandemic on territories of the peoples originating in the Amazon basin and highlighted the vulnerability of Indigenous elders and children far from hospitals and often lacking basic infrastructure.

The level of abandonment and total lack of care for the indigenous Amazonians has reached a level of ethnic cleansing and ethnocide. They are passing in silence and they will not be counted in the official statistics of any country that shares Amazonian territory.

Yet, Illegal loggers, miners, and extractive resource companies have continued their activities throughout the pandemic, not only placing in terrible danger the tribes of the remote areas often 2-3 days by boat from hospitals but the workers themselves.

The scale of tragedy in Amazonia right now is unfathomable: the destruction of the rainforest and polluting of the rivers threatening indigenous Peoples is now compounded by a deadly virus pandemic. No one from the national government, nor local authority, has done anything to stop either of these scourges on the Indigenous peoples of Amazonia.

In Brazil, we fear for the Tupi Guarani and the many uncontacted tribes that have called their territories home for hundreds of years. With few or no public health facilities Indigenous tribal members in remote areas are extremely vulnerable—a 15-year-old Yanomami boy was one of the first Indigenous persons in Brazil’s Amazon to die of COVID-19 in April.

We fear for the Urarinas from Trompeteros. They are suffering greatly and in urgent need of medical supplies, medical staff and food. The Awajun, Wampis, northern Achuar and the Ecuadorian Shuar communities are beginning to suffer from hunger.

We have lost important Amazonian tribal mothers in the past two months. Mamá Ilda Ihuanari, a very active Kukama language defender and part of the Radio Ucamara project succumbed to the virus. COVID-19 also took Marcelina Maynas Collantes (Soi Same,) mother of Apu and a strong and relentless language defender and gifted artist and poet. Her loss is still mourned and will be mourned for such a long time.

Nearly a month ago respected elder and medicine woman from the Isconahua tradition, Pibi Awin, featured in the 2014 documentary Iskobakebo and who launched an open-world prayer last May 2019, was reported as seriously ill in her Chachibai community, in Ucayali.

Pibiawin is one of 5 elders who have the Isconahua language as a mother tongue. We pray for her recovery. In the Amazon region of Peru alone 43 languages are threatened, e.g., Shipibo-Konibo, Matsés, Urarina, Achuar, Awajun, etc. and the death of elders threaten the living languages of entire peoples.

Indigenous Amazonians living near large towns/cities in the Amazon region, such as the Shipibo-Konibo living in an Intercultural enclave near the city of Pucallpa (Red Earth) have fared no better. They report more than 70 deaths including a very important Shipibo elected official the Mayor of Masisea town whose death was presumably due to lack of medical help at a local hospital in Pucallpa. The symptoms of COVID-19 are everywhere among the Shipibo-Konibo not only in Pucallpa but in across the region.

In Lima, the Peruvian government “lockdown” exposed the poverty of Indigenous persons and their dependence on day labor, often working in open street markets, and translated into the inability to pay rent and buy food for their families. Many indigenous persons were forcibly evicted from their rented rooms.

Now thousands of people—many of them Indigenous—are returning, often by foot, with all their belongings and a child on their back, to escape the ravages of the pandemic in Lima, the Ayllus without territory. Tragically, they know it will take only one infected person, to enter a remote rural village to cause disaster.

Among those that remain in Lima, 300 hundred Shipibo-Konibo families currently live in a vacant lot. Seventy-eight percent have tested positive and they are now under an epidemiological lockdown surrounded by the police and with a strict order that no one enters no one goes out.

For Amazonian tribal members that grew up in the rainforest, this confinement is horrendous.

It is now time to launch our own tribal nation-to-nation assistance programs to our distant relatives of Amazonia in their time of desperate need. The COVID-19 virus does not respect human-constructed geo-political boundaries, elders, fragile, yet life-enhancing cultures, and languages.

This pandemic has had devastating effects on our North American Indigenous nations. It has laid bare the systemic injustice and inequalities that continue to exist in the United States of America. It is, also, shining a positive light in many cases on our tribal sovereignty and political leadership.

Although our lives are often complicated in the contested political and geographic landscape of the USA, we have witnessed some incredible bravery and the exercise of inalienable responsibilities that we honor in our ancient political traditions.

It would be nice to only have to address one global crisis at a time, but such is not our fate as a disease pandemic, climate change, political and economic institutional crises, and let’s not forget education crises are part of the world we now inhabit.

We are fortunate to have several Indigenous-led non-governmental organizations doing good work to address this latest global crisis and all the other crises that affect our southern relatives most directly. And these Indigenous relatives are arguably the closest to our Mother Earth.

What we want to ask—as we process this devastating global COVID-19 pandemic and what it means to our nations, communities, families, and the larger ecosystems, environments and biomes in which we participate—is this: Is it time to start an effort to reinvigorate our own ancient first peoples diplomatic and international traditions nation-to-nation?

Indigenous peoples are grateful for all of our non-Indigenous allies and non-governmental organizations.

However, given what we have learned from this horrible pandemic, we believe NOW is time to establish our own Indigenous nation-to-nation international aid agreements. After all, that is what nations do.

Given the multiple global crises now confronting us, we must start working together in ways we have never done before.

Our Peoples and our Mother Earth need this to happen.

Ms. Miryam Yataco
Dr. Daniel Wildcat

(Photo credit Fernando Valdivia)

Miryam Yataco is a Peruvian-born language rights advocate, and a sociolinguist. Ms. Yataco graduated with a Master’s in Education and completed coursework in doctoral program at New York University. Her work focuses on language policies, language ideologies, decolonization of knowledge and power. She is part of a group of Indigenous scholars and activists that work to forward the aims of Native American and Indigenous sovereignty and resurgence. Presently she is an External Research Associate at Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Peru.

Dr. Daniel R. Wildcat is a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma. He is a faculty member in the Indigenous and American Indian Studies Program of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. In 2013 he was the Gordon Russell visiting professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth College. He is the author and editor of several books: Power and Place: Indian Education In America, with Vine Deloria, Jr., Destroying Dogma: Vine Deloria’s Legacy on Intellectual America, with Steve Pavlik, and Red Alert: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge. He is a co-author on the Southern Great Plains chapter of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. 

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