COVID-19 ravaged Indian Country early in the pandemic. At specific points, Indigenous people were dying at twice the rate of white people in the United States. In 2020, coronavirus breakouts stole people from us at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation. Other Nations imposed strict curfews to curb the spread of disease, like Walker River and Pyramid Lake. Tribal government after Tribal government practiced sovereignty to protect Tribal citizens, but we still lost people to the ravages of disease.
Beyond just the physical impact of disease, COVID-19 unravels the bonds we hold with one another. Quarantine has isolated individuals and separated relatives, and even though it was necessary, it was hard on the spirit. Instead of embracing each other at a powwow, we must visit one another on Zoom. Brothers and sisters pass away without their loved ones nearby. The funerals that once celebrated life could not be held, creating unorthodox cultural strains on our grieving processes. And traditions like Sun Dances became as unsafe to honor as they once were under the regime of genocidal assimilation.
Vaccination has also been challenging to accept for many Indigenous people. Black and Indigenous populations have been historically mistreated by the scientific community and medical establishment of the United States, making it even harder to establish trust. While Black folks were subject to withholding medical treatment in infamous research like the Tuskegee study, Native people were ignored and erased from medical care for a host of infectious diseases. That neglect began with diseases that decimated Indigenous people at the onset of colonization and continued to tuberculosis and trachoma.
Combine that history with the remoteness of many Tribal communities in Nevada—especially in the center of the state where the nearest hospital is hours away—without adequate access to Indian Health Services (IHS). The structural barriers to Indigenous wellness during the pandemic have been jaw-dropping. But it is essential that we are vaccinated, that we are protected. We cannot allow our relatives to continue to face the suffering and risk of COVID-19. Only through vaccination and adequate mask-wearing can we continue to practice care for one another.
Like it or not, we’re still in the pandemic. We can't return to the world before COVID-19, but we can find new and effective ways to invigorate Indigenous wellness. For example, we can conduct funeral services online and support groups remotely. Not only does that allow us new mechanisms for maintaining spiritual and communal health, but holding virtual meetups (for prayers, meditation, grieving, empowerment, etc.) also allows us to branch out and form new social support networks.
Together, we can find new ways to support one another.