Northern Cheyenne Nation
Nations all across the world are exercising state authority to close their borders and protect their citizens from an invisible enemy. 114 of the total 195 countries have instituted travel restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 according to updated data on Friday March 27.
This includes 40 countries with a total border ban — only citizens and permanent residents are allowed in. For some countries, like Australia, the ban is “indefinite.” The United States has restricted foreign travelers from a handful of countries, while U.S. citizens and permanent residents abroad are required to fly into one of 13 international airports. Closing national borders as part of wide-spread physical distancing measures in times of pandemics has proven effective, at least in the short term.
Yet, there are nations within the U.S. who cannot close their borders, even as we reach a grim milestone: the U.S. now has the highest number of confirmed cases of the virus. These nations are the 574 federally recognized American Indian tribal nations whose people are among the most at risk of dying from COVID-19 due to long-standing health disparities and a lack of basic infrastructure.
Tribal nations are spread across the U.S. on 326 reservations comprising a total of 50 million acres of land. For perspective, of the 2.4 billion acres of land in the U.S., tribal nations retain just around 2% of what was once their traditional territory.
While tribal lands and Indigenous peoples are largely invisible to mainstream America, nobody is invisible to COVID-19.
Though often located in remote places of the country, Indian reservations are frequently intersected by major roadways and serve as thoroughfares. It is due to the transit of goods through reservation lands that tribal nations cannot enforce strict border closures, which could save the lives of their most vulnerable people right now.
Despite retaining legal jurisdiction (albeit limited) on reservations, tribal nations cannot inhibit interstate commerce traveling through their lands due to the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. In short, they cannot close state highways, meaning they cannot effectively close reservation borders. Not even in a global pandemic.
I’m not saying that closing reservation borders would stop the virus from coming into reservations, but it’s a tool in the arsenal of nation states to which tribal nations have no access.
Right now, every last tool is needed. But border politics have never stopped Indigenous peoples. Just as boundary making remains a core act of American statecraft, straddling borders has become a necessary act of survival for Indigenous peoples.
While we can’t control who is coming into our homelands, we can control what happens on them, and tribal leaders have risen to the awful occasion that we all find ourselves in. To date, 175 tribal nations have issued emergency declarations in response to the pandemic, including mine, the Northern Cheyenne Nation, comprising 11,500 citizens and more than 500,000 acres in what is now called southeast Montana.
Tribal leaders have closed schools, non-essential businesses, community centers, casinos, gyms, and other places where the virus could easily spread. Shelter in place orders are growing daily. Some tribal nations have even imposed curfews forbidding their residents from leaving their homes after a certain time in the evening.
Efforts are underway to get tribal nations access to the Strategic National Stockpile for personal protective equipment. Members of the Congressional Native American Caucus have fought hard to ensure there is funding in the stimulus package for tribal nations and the Indian Health Service.
The provision of health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives is not a privilege, it’s a treaty right. Yet, it comes as no surprise that federal investment is nowhere near enough to meet the need. Make no mistake: the distribution of resources to beat this virus will not be equitable.
As the virus takes hold in dense population centers, reports are growing that those who have the means are fleeing cities to seek refuge in rural areas. It’s only a matter of time before places like Montana, with seven Indian Reservations and more cows than people, become particularly attractive places for COVID-19 refugees to wait this out.
But let’s be clear, this scenario is incredibly selfish and reckless. Not only does one risk transmitting the disease to areas where it has not yet hit, but the very presence of outsiders exacerbates the rationing of basic resources and access to care in places that are already struggling in the best of times, like Indian reservations.
Indigenous peoples, who have only known life in the margins of American society, can tell you how this is going to play out. We have over 500 years of experience on the other side of the coin. But what isn’t getting talked about is the fact that our peoples have always been warriors.
Survival in the time of scarcity is what we do best. We know how to win as underdogs because we are products of it. Our ancestors battled previous pandemics and survived every attempt imaginable to eradicate them from this earth. Now, that fight courses through our veins.
Across Indian Country, people are remembering why we are still here.
My tribe has activated the emergency protocols of our military societies. This is not something we take lightly. It only happens when there is a profound threat to our way of life. COVID-19 is that threat.
Other tribal communities have started the mass harvesting of wild game and traditional foods to ensure nobody goes hungry. Strong, healthy young people are returning home to help. Individuals are coming together in responsible ways to chop wood, build emergency hand-wash stations, haul water, and deliver necessities to the most vulnerable.
Our elders are praying to the four directions and also on social media for all to hear. We are remembering what it feels like to sit in stillness; to lay on the earth. Our medicine people are preparing. Our researchers are crunching data. Our attorneys are drafting laws. Our babies are dancing in virtual powwows and listening to stories in languages we were told would go extinct.
Some of our most respected people are those who make us laugh and they are working overtime because our spirits need uplifting. Our creators are using their hands and their hearts to build a path that will lead us out of fear.
No matter where you are or who you are, it’s time to warrior up and use your respective talents and gifts to fight this unknown enemy. It is not an enemy that can be beat through force or violence. Rather, it requires a common commitment to our shared humanity and love for our communities.
Indigenous peoples have different ways of describing this interrelationship. One that particularly resonates at this time is the Lakota teaching “Mitakuye Oyasin” or “All My Relations.”
For me, that means it’s time to leave the city where I’m in my last semester of graduate school to head to the stronghold. A 22-hour drive, a 14-day self-quarantine, and the strength of generations of my ancestors who survived against all odds await me when I cross my reservation borders to get home.
It’s the call that many of us are answering.
Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, Northern Cheyenne Nation, is a Dual PhD Candidate at the University of Arizona School of Sociology and the University of Waikato in New Zealand. As a social demographer, her research focuses on Indigenous population statistics and strengthening tribal data systems. Follow her on Twitter @native4data.