Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe
Indian Country just reported its first death amid the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving many people deeply concerned if the novel coronavirus will reach them. As public awareness and conversation around the novel coronavirus increase, the situation brings a lot of anxiety and worry for many as lives have been disrupted for millions.
This week, efforts to stop the spreading of the coronavirus have increased and most people in the country have been urged to stay home and practice social distancing.
Hundreds of tribal communities have already voluntarily closed their doors and suspended operations for many businesses, including casinos, to protect their members as well as the general public from the spreading of the coronavirus.
With schools throughout the country being closed, the coronavirus has affected nearly every family in Indian Country.
How serious should we take the precautions?
We meet and discuss with leaders who are working in Indian Country who share their advice and recommendations on dealing with the global pandemic.
Jodi Archambault, Hunkpapa and Oglala Lakota, is the former special assistant to the president, White House Domestic Policy Council and former White House associate director of Intergovernmental affairs and is currently the director of Indigenous Peoples Initiatives at Wend Ventures, a social impact investment portfolio working across sectors to create positive change. She currently lives in Bismarck, North Dakota, near her community on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Her dedication to tribes and communities is paramount and how she is handling the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic is she limits her social media activity, follows the advice given by healthcare professionals, and views self-isolation as a time-out rather than being told what not to do.
“There’s bombarding of competing narratives of what’s going on with the COVID-19 situation,” says Archambault. “Competing narratives confuses people and at the end of the day, we’re all here together.”
“What clearly worked in China was social distancing,” says Archambault. “Social distancing is so difficult for so many here because our societies are so connected to commerce by traveling and interacting with so many people.”
She currently monitors information by following the New York Times, the World Healthcare Organization, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and follows Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a statistician that specializes in uncertainty.
In regards to the current administration, she comments that initially there has been some denial on the seriousness of the virus and that led to distrust, causing misinformation to spread along with unnecessary panicking that can lead to hoarding of food and other products.
How and what information reaches tribes is detrimental.
“All tribes are trying to figure out their emergency response plans,” says Archambault.
Misinformation surely spreads distrust, but what’s important to acknowledge is that the virus is novel and everyone who becomes infected has never been infected before.
“Because this is new, our people can potentially be devastated and I’m worried for our elders.”
Healthcare facilities in Indian Country have long been behind the times and inadequate to serve a vulnerable population. The Indian Health Service is looking at a far lower ratio of providing high-quality respirators than other healthcare providers and there hasn’t been any training to first responders, making both the facilities and workforce severely underprepared.
“There are very few emergency departments at IHS facilities and the ones we do have are not state-of-the-art and unable to deal with a global pandemic,” expresses Archambault.
And while people may feel paralyzed by the outbreak, Jodi reflects that it can be a time for introspection. “It’s not a real panic if we just stay home,” says Archambault.
“People who leave home and continue on with their daily lives are in deep denial,” she says. “If up to 70 percent of our population stops moving, our healthcare and hospitals can fight this virus and a lot of lives can be saved.”
“Americans, including our own people, are so used to our liberties,” says Archambault. “What we want to do in a single day has always been entirely up to us, and it still is, but practice social distancing while spending time with family and loved ones.”
“What we do today, it will affect how the virus will be spread in the future. If we all practice social distancing, we can detain the virus and how it spreads.”
She continues by sharing this is a time for reflection, isolation and for Indigenous people to get back to their roots and rebuilding a relationship with family and Mother Earth.
Linda Black Elk
Linda Black Elk is a member of the Catawba Nation of South Carolina and currently the Director of Food Sovereignty at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota. She is an Indigenous ethnobotanist that specializes in plants and their uses as food, medicine and materials. Her knowledge comes from her family and is matrilineal - it was passed down from her mother and grandmother at an early age. While a little girl, she had visions that she would one day become a healer.
Her teachings reach beyond the classroom, however. She presents at conferences, gatherings and events far and wide emphasizing the teachings of Indigenous peoples and their use of plants as medicine.
Her advice is to return to the earth for food, medicine, and healing, but to also take the outbreak of the coronavirus seriously.
“When we eat the foods we are supposed to be eating, while avoiding the colonized and processed foods in a box or a can, we’re able to fight off illnesses just as strongly as our ancestors were able to,” says Black Elk. “And even more so because we have been exposed to more than our ancestors have.”
She recommends to incorporate fermented foods into our diets because they include bacteria that are positive for the body. More commonly referred to as probiotics, examples of fermented foods are sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, maple vinegar, and wojapi - the traditional berry sauce made with ripe berries and water.
If made with natural ingredients such as chokecherries, blueberries, strawberries and raspberries, wojapi can develop positive bacteria within 24 hours. “However, using canned pie filling to make wojapi isn’t a good substitute because it’s loaded with processed white sugar and preservatives,” shares Black Elk. Using whole, natural and traditional ingredients is the healthiest way to make wojapi.
“Staying healthy by eating right is very important,” says Black Elk. “And for far too long, our people have been taught to not trust our own foods.”
“If we start trusting our traditional foods again, we will rid our people of diabetes, heart disease and obesity,” says Black Elk.
In preparing and fighting the coronavirus, Black Elk shares that while people are returning to a more traditional diet they may become asymptomatic—producing or showing no symptoms.
But that doesn’t mean we all return to our traditional diets and continue on our daily lives as usual.
Linda and her family are currently isolated and quarantined. “By practicing social distancing, washing hands regularly, and listening to officials by staying home, we are respecting our elders,” says Black Elk. “We absolutely should be quarantining ourselves, because although we can all voice our people have survived smallpox, it devastated our people.”
“Although people may believe that younger people are not as affected by the outbreak, it can destroy what little we have left or our last few fluent speakers, knowledge keepers and elders,” stresses Black Elk. “Use this time by putting families first and thinking of your loved ones by keeping yourself safe.”
Rep. Ruth Buffalo, Three Affiliated Tribes, is a member of the North Dakota House of Representatives from the 27th District. She is currently quarantined with her husband and children in Fargo, North Dakota.
When asked about the seriousness of the pandemic, Buffalo takes it very seriously and advises the public to stay at home, practice social distancing and to trust our healthcare professionals and the advice they are giving.
“Definitely practice good hygiene,” says Buffalo. “Practice social distancing. Find ways to deal with new stress in a healthy way such as meditation, guided imagery, sharing artwork, poetry and sharing unique ideas with each other is a great way to practice social distancing while maintaining community.”
Behind the scenes, she encourages people to stay focused and not be distracted. “Family comes first and to protect our families, we must take safety precautions to protect both ourselves and the community,” she says,
“I think it’s a message for us to slow down, take a break because things have been so fast paced for so long.”
Her concerns are not only with her community, though. She voiced the needs of those that don’t have families as well as those who are incarcerated. “Who’s checking up on them?” asks Buffalo. “Those who are incarcerated, especially the elderly, have compromised health and medical conditions - are they getting the care that they need?”
“While we may feel helpless, there’s a lot we can do through technology by making phone calls, video calls and messaging each other through phones."
Dr. Kyle Hill
Dr. Kyle Hill is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Dakota from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. He is the director of Training for the Counseling and Support Services Department at the Indian Health Board of Minneapolis and a therapist in the urban community of the Twin Cities of Minnesota.
He takes mental health seriously.
Mental health is vital to any community, regardless of time and with the overwhelming attention and news focusing on the COVID-19 outbreak, how does one receive their mental health needs? His advice is to adhere to the advice given by healthcare professionals.
“We have to stay at home,” advises Dr. Hill. “That brings us to ask how our patients will take care of their mental health needs by acknowledging public health. The biggest thing is we are in the midst of a pandemic and when we move close to people we put them at risk.” The question Dr. Hill poses is - what happens when we don’t feel safe in our own mental health when we’re also a risk? “We all have the capacity to save lives if we stay home,” says Dr. Hill. “The burden of seeking services is on each individual and to do so virtually.” “
Many mental healthcare providers are trying to figure out ways to meet the community’s needs,” says Dr. Hill. “We’re moving quickly and, in light of this crisis, a lot of ethical issues surrounding tele-health and tele-medicine are waived a little. Your healthcare provider will give you details and information on how to move forward virtually.” “This is a time for prayer and isolation,” continues Dr. Hill. “Sit in ceremony with yourselves and pray for our elders and community.”
“Take recommendations from your provider and start incorporating meditation into your daily life. I would personally recommend the Calm and Headspace apps and practice good, healthy habits.” Dr. Hill continues to elaborate on using this time as an opportunity to return to the land and to acknowledge our original instructions.
“The teachings from this time make us confront the contract between capitalism, settler colonialism and our traditional ways,” says Dr. Hill. “We have always been empowered by our relationship to the land.”
Protect families, stay at home
We can’t control how many people are going to react to instructions, but we can protect our families and communities by staying home.
“We always say that we love our families,” says Jodi Archambault. “Now this is our chance to express that. The things that our grandparents taught us about being with nature with our relatives outside. There’s nothing wrong with trying to remember in our deeper relationships with Mother Earth.”
“We should be the leaders on this because we know the consequences of a pandemic,” expresses Linda Black Elk. “We’ve been through this before and should be setting the example of quarantining ourselves and staying as healthy as possible. One such way to do this is returning to our traditional foods.”
Continue to get physical activity. Continue to eat healthy. But definitely avoid people.
Stay home. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands. Sanitize regularly.
Darren Thompson, Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe, is a film producer and consultant.