The virus took Grandma Delores away first, silencing an 86-year-old voice who sang songs and told stories about the Lakota (a Native American tribe). Then it was Uncle Ralph, a stoic Vietnam War veteran. And just after Christmas, two other elders of the Taken Alive family were buried in the frozen prairie of North Dakota: Jesse and Cheryl, husband and wife who died less than a month apart.
“It’s an incredible thing,” commented the couple’s eldest son, Ira Taken Alive. “The amount of knowledge they had, the connections to our past.”
These connections are severed one by one as the coronavirus decimates Native American elders, wreaking untold havoc on linguistic and traditional ties that extend from the oldest to the youngest.
“It’s like we’re having a cultural book burn,” said Jason Salsman, a spokesperson for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in eastern Oklahoma. Her grandparents contracted the coronavirus, but they survived. “We are losing historical archives, entire encyclopedias. One of these days, there will be no one left to pass this knowledge on.
The loss of ancient tribals has assumed the proportions of a cultural crisis because the pandemic has decimated Native Americans and Alaska at a rate almost twice that of whites, intensifying the already deadly consequences of a healthcare system broken and generations of nefarious and unfulfilled promises by the US government.
The deaths of the Muscogee elders overloaded the tribe’s burial program. They were grandparents and mikos – traditional rulers who knew the preparations for the annual green corn ceremonies and how to feed the sacred fire their ancestors carried in Oklahoma by following the Trail of Tears. A small Methodist church on the reserve recently lost three dear Great Aunts who used to bring sweets and hidden smiles to restless children during Sunday services.
“These are things we can never get back,” Salsman said.
Now, tribal nations and volunteer groups are making efforts to protect their elders, seeing them as a mission of cultural survival.
Navajo women have launched a campaign to bring meals and alcoholic gel to trailers and isolated homes in the desert with no running water, where quarantines and closures at community centers have left the elderly isolated. Some elderly people now put sheets of colored cardboard on their windows: green to mark “everything is fine”, red to call for help.
In western Montana, volunteers led by a supermarket worker prepare meals with turkey and packages of personal hygiene products to deliver to Elders in the Blackfeet Nation. In Arizona, the White Mountain Apaches sent out thermometers and pulse oximeters and taught young people to monitor their grandparents’ vital signs.
Across the country, indigenous tribes are now placing elders and people fluent in indigenous languages at the top of the vaccination line. But the effort faces enormous obstacles.
Older people living in remote areas often lack transportation to get to hospitals or clinics where vaccines are given. And there is deep mistrust of the government among a generation that has been subjected to medical trials without its consent, sent to boarding school against their will and punished for speaking their own language, in a campaign of forced assimilation. that has been going on for decades.
The pandemic began about a year ago, but campaigners say a reliable tally of native elders killed by Covid has yet to be taken. They say the deaths of these elders are downplayed or poorly counted, especially in the case of those who live off reserves or in urban areas, such as about 70% of Native Americans.
To compound the problem, tribal health officials say that once they are moved from small on-reserve health systems to larger hospitals, with intensive care units, American Indians can disappear into the mainstream. convenient.
“We didn’t know what had been done with them, until we came across a funeral announcement,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indigenous Health Institute.
The virus has already killed fluent Choctaw-speaking people and traditional dressmakers from the Mississippi Native Choctaw Band. He took the matriarch of a Tulalip family to Washington State, then her sister and her brother-in-law.
He killed a former president of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in California, who spent decades fighting to preserve Indigenous arts and culture. He killed among members of the American Indigenous Movement, an organization founded in 1968 that would become the most radical and well-known organization for the defense of the civil rights of Native Americans.
In the Navajo Nation, where 565 of the 869 deaths already suffered on the reserve are those aged 60 and over, the pandemic has devastated the ranks of the “hataalii”, traditional shamans of both sexes.
When the virus exploded in the Navajo Nation, traditional healers, who use prayers, songs and herbs in their treatments, attempted to protect themselves with masks and gloves. They wrapped ceremonial items in plastic. They placed a glass of alcohol gel in front of each traditional house.
But people kept coming for help to cope with their pain or to pray for the good of their sick loved ones. And the healers got sick too.
Now, virtual meetings for members of the Diné Hataalii Association, which brings together Navajo healers and healers, include information on the group’s most recent deaths, some members said. The list of the dead now includes Avery Denny’s grandfather and aunt, aged 75 and 78 respectively. Both died from the virus.
“When they leave us, all the knowledge they have accumulated is lost forever and cannot be recovered,” said Denny, member of the association and professor at Diné College. “All is lost.”