Despite hardships and racism, Native Americans find hope during pandemic

Self-help and collaboration part of recovery, healing

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

“COVID at the Margins” continues at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time Monday with a segment on immigration.

LOUISVILLE — A timely and sometimes painful discussion on the impact of COVID-19 and racism on Native Americans ended on a hopeful note Tuesday, with a panelist invoking an image from nature.

Fern Cloud, a Native American woman who’s pastor of Pejuhutazizi Presbyterian Church in Granite Falls, Minnesota, likened the status of oppressed people of color to that of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

Though struggling right now, “we will break through,” said Cloud, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Tribe on the Lake Traverse Reservation located in northeastern South Dakota.

Fern Cloud

Cloud was among the featured guests on this week’s segment of “COVID at the Margins,” a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) series of virtual discussions exploring the effects of the coronavirus and other societal hurdles on people of color. The Native American segment was hosted by the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People.

The series, which continues Monday and Tuesday, is taking place not only as the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the globe but also as protests continue in various parts of the country over police brutality against African Americans.

Anna Marie Rondon, executive director of the New Mexico Equity and Social Justice Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, referred to what she called a pandemic of racism that she traces back to the U.S. Constitution and the Doctrine of Discovery, a concept of law that has been used to justify colonization and the taking of indigenous people’s land and repudiated by the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2016. She also noted the country’s history of slavery. “All of these genocidal tendencies against our people and people of color are alive and well,” she said.

Cloud wondered aloud why there haven’t been more federal provisions, from masks to funding, to fight the pandemic among Native Americans. But she also spoke about efforts by the indigenous people to help themselves and the importance of unity.

“It’s time that people of color are coming together in solidarity … and moving forward,” she said.

Krystal Curley

Fellow panelist Krystal Curley, a member of the Navajo nation, shared how the pandemic has amplified pre-existing problems, such as lack of running water and limited access to health care, in Native American communities.

“Right now, with this COVID-19, it’s really overwhelming our families, our communities, our health care system, our food chain supply here,” said Curley, who’s based in Gallup, New Mexico. “I think the root of all of this is the racism that we’ve all been feeling for hundreds of years.”

Others on the panel included Marcus Briggs-Cloud, a language revitalizer, scholar and musician, and the Rev. Irvin Porter of the Church of the Indian Fellowship in Tacoma, Washington.

Curley, executive director of Indigenous Life Ways in Gallup, said the pandemic has been challenging for Native Americans in various ways.

For example, when medical treatment is needed, “a lot of our folks, they’re getting flown out to Albuquerque, which is about two hours (away) … or they go to Phoenix, which is a four- or five-hour drive,” she said.

Curley also talked about the challenge of acquiring supplies and other necessities.

“A lot of these business owners make a lot of money off of our people,” she said. “Thousands and thousands of people have to travel to these border towns to get supplies, so there’s no way our people can stay home. … We have to travel to get our water and haul our water. We have to figure out how to get gas for our generators to supply our electricity for our home. We have to figure out how to refrigerate our food because we don’t have a refrigerator.”

Curley is part of a grassroots effort called McKinley Mutual Aid that has been able to help feed nearly 2,000 families during the pandemic. “For the past several months now, we’ve been providing food every single week to our community,” she said.

But it hasn’t always been easy. Curley broke down in tears while describing a time when she had to rely on a non-Native American co-collaborator to acquire food for her people after being discriminated against.

“I feel like sometimes you have to have a white person to get through this pandemic, so the racism that our people are feeling is hard and it’s real and it’s holding our people back from actually surviving every single day,” she said.

Meanwhile, in rural Alabama, the Maskoke people are looking to the future by protecting their language and traditional way of life inside an ecovillage, Ekvn-Yefolecv. The community strives to be environmentally friendly and self-sufficient, raising and growing its own food, building homes from natural materials and sharing income.

Marcus Briggs-Cloud

“We have these prophesies among our people that things are going to go bad and only people that know how to live in a good way with the natural world are going to survive,” said Briggs-Cloud, co-director of the ecovillage. “This pandemic is just part of it.”

He sees a connection between the pandemic and putting capitalism ahead of protecting the natural world and is particularly concerned about the risk of COVID-19 to the elders, who help preserve their language.

“We have to be very, very serious about this because this could impact us in ways that would lead to the death of our identity that’s very ancient but hanging on by a thread at this point.”

The COVID at the Margins series continues at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time Monday, June 22, with a segment on immigration, followed by a segment at 2 p.m. Eastern Time Tuesday, June 23, focused on Latinx issues.

The work of the Committee on the Self-Development of People is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing. SDOP is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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