Tribal elders are dying from the pandemic, causing a cultural crisis for American Indians
By Jack Healy
The virus took Grandma Delores first, silencing an 86-year-old voice that rang with Lakota songs and stories. Then it came for Uncle Ralph, a stoic Vietnam veteran. And just after Christmas, two more elders of the Taken Alive family were buried on the frozen North Dakota prairie: Jesse and Cheryl, husband and wife, who died a month apart.
“It takes your breath away,” said Ira Taken Alive, the couple’s oldest son. “The amount of knowledge they held, and connection to our past.”
One by one, those connections are being severed as the coronavirus tears through ranks of Native American elders, inflicting an incalculable toll on bonds of language and tradition that flow from older generations to the young.
“It’s like we’re having a cultural book-burning,” said Jason Salsman, a spokesperson for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in eastern Oklahoma, whose grandparents contracted the virus but survived. “We’re losing a historical record, encyclopedias. One day soon, there won’t be anybody to pass this knowledge down.”
The loss of tribal elders has swelled into a cultural crisis as the pandemic has killed American Indians and Alaska Natives at nearly twice the rate of white people, deepening what critics call the deadly toll of a tattered health system and generations of harm and broken promises by the U.S. government.
The deaths of Muscogee elders strained the tribe’s burial program. They were grandparents and mikos, traditional leaders who knew how to prepare for annual green-corn ceremonies and how to stoke sacred fires their ancestors had carried to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. One tiny Methodist church on the reservation recently lost three cherished great-aunts who would sneak candy and smiles to restless children during Sunday services.
“We’ll never be able to get that back,” Salsman said.
Tribal nations and volunteer groups are now trying to protect their elders as a mission of cultural survival.
Navajo women started a campaign to deliver meals and sanitizer to high-desert trailers and remote homes without running water, where elders have been left stranded by quarantines and lockdowns of community centers. Some now post colored cardboard in their windows: green for “OK,” red for “Help.”
In western Montana, volunteers led by a grocery-store worker put together turkey dinners and hygiene packets to deliver to Blackfeet Nation elders. In Arizona, the White Mountain Apache sent out thermometers and pulse oximeters and taught young people to monitor their grandparents’ vital signs.
Across the country, tribes are now putting elders and fluent Indigenous language speakers at the head of the line for vaccinations. But the effort faces huge obstacles. Elders who live in remote locations often have no means to get to the clinics and hospitals where vaccinations are administered. And there is deep mistrust of the government in a generation that was subjected without consent to medical testing, shipped off to boarding schools and punished for speaking their own language in a decadeslong campaign of forced assimilation.
About a year into the pandemic, activists say there is still is no reliable death toll of Native elders. They say their deaths are overlooked or miscounted, especially off reservations and in urban areas, where some 70% of Indigenous people live.
Adding to the problem, tribal health officials say their sickest members can essentially vanish once they are transferred out of small reservation health systems to larger hospitals with intensive-care units.
“We don’t know what happens to them until we see a funeral announcement,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute.
The virus claimed fluent Choctaw speakers and dressmakers from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. It took a Tulalip family matriarch in Washington state, then her sister and brother-in-law. It killed a former chair of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in California who spent decades fighting to preserve Native arts and culture. It has killed members of the American Indian Movement, a group founded in 1968 that became the country’s most radical and prominent civil rights organization for American Indian rights.
On the Navajo Nation, where 565 of the reservation’s 869 deaths are among people 60 and older, the pandemic has devastated the ranks of hataałii, traditional medicine men and women.
When the virus exploded across the Navajo Nation, traditional healers who use prayer, songs and herbs as treatments tried to protect themselves with masks and gloves. They wrapped ceremonial objects in plastic. They set hand sanitizer outside traditional hogan dwellings.
But people came, seeking help with their grief or prayers for ailing relatives. And the healers got sick.
Now, remote meetings of the Diné Hataałii Association, a group of Navajo medicine men and women, include updates on who has died, members said. The roster of loss now includes Avery Denny’s 75-year-old grandfather and 78-year-old aunt, who both died of the virus.
“When they pass on, all that knowledge is gone forever, never to be retained,” said Denny, a member of the association and professor at Diné College. “It’s just lost.”