Native Americans find hope in the pandemic

Self-help and collaboration part of recovery, healing

By Darla Carter | Presbyterians Today

The Rev. Irvin Porter, associate for Native American Intercultural Congregational Support Ministries, lights a candle of hope, as the Native American community faces COVID-19 challenges. Tammy Warren

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

Fern Cloud, a Commissioned Ruling Elder (CRE) 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 we are 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.

Cloud was among the featured guests on “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. Past segments can be viewed online at

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.

Fellow panelist Krystal Curley, a member of the Navajo Nation, shared how the pandemic has amplified preexisting problems, such as the lack of running water and limited access to health care, in Native American communities. 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, New Mexico, 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. “People have to travel to 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 electricity for our homes. We have to figure out how to refrigerate our food because we don’t have refrigerators,” she said.

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, we’ve been providing food every single week to our community,” 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 called 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.

“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 he 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 it 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.”

Darla Carter is a communications associate with the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

The Native American Leadership Development Fund Award

Grant application deadline is Sept. 30

The Presbyterian Mission Agency is accepting grant applications for the Native American Leadership Development Fund Award.

The 2020 one-time awards are being made available for education and/or leadership development of Native American Presbyterian leaders or Native American Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) organizations and communities.

According to Tim McCallister, associate for Mission Program Grants & Schools & Colleges Equipping Communities of Color, the grants are to “encourage pioneers, risk-takers and trailblazers.”

Organizations must submit a written application and proposal by no later than Sept. 30.

The awards will be announced by Nov. 2. Applications are available here.

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