Finally, “Black Lives Matter” gains traction. Showing videos and telling stories that bring attention to the large numbers of deaths by police and the cases and deaths by COVID-19 among African-Americans has led to this long-delayed confrontation with our prejudiced society. What we see with our own eyes can no longer be ignored, which makes this seem a historic moment that could bring about real change.
The press has gone some way towards reporting the heavy impact of the disease on the working poor. Solid reporting has brought out the disproportionate number of black and brown people working as house cleaners, health care aides, and in food processing plants, public transportation, and other occupations that put them at greater risk of contagion. Poor neighborhoods, poor water and crowded living conditions have also been exposed as furthering the spread of the virus.
What may not have registered is that the worldwide epidemic has also hit American Indians particularly hard. With a population of just 173,667, the Navajo Nation had 7,549 confirmed cases and 363 deaths attributed to the virus as of July 1. That is more than 4,447 cases per 100,000 people — a higher per-capita rate than anywhere in the United States.
For comparison, New York is at 2,150 cases per 100,000 people. Put another way, at the Navajo Nation rate, my state of Oregon would have over 184,000 COVID cases and 8,970 deaths instead of 208 deaths. (Source: Worldometer). Yet the press has devoted little space to the virus having its way in Indian country.
The history of disease among tribes is, in a word, terrible. Epidemic diseases killed more indigenous people in the Americas at the start of European colonialism than all the Indian wars. Measles, smallpox and tuberculosis devastated the misnamed Indians, from fishermen-borne diseases brought to tribes along the Atlantic coast in the 16th century to the near-extirpation of the Cayuse in the 1840s. These diseases, unfamiliar to the native Americans, continued to damage tribes through the twentieth century.
Charles Mann argues strongly in “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” that disease attacks on Indians had a genetic component, meaning that indigenous Americans were far more susceptible to viral diseases than white populations. And, according to Indian friends, there are strong tribal memories of the devastating 1918 flu. That generational memory has some living in fear today as COVID-19 marches across America.
Historian Alvin Josephy said that when we are not lying about American Indians our history we are omitting them. A recent instance of omission: Politico reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has turned down tribal epidemiologists’ requests for data about the virus that it’s making freely available to states.
For Euro-Americans, it’s been a harsh road traveled over and around American Indians. Most of it has had to do with land: They had it and white people wanted it. Disease killed off Squanto’s people, and when the Puritans arrived they were saved by caches of food remaining in what seemed like an empty landscape. Combat with superior numbers and firepower grabbed more land from native Americans. When war didn’t work, treaties — and a continued rewriting or abandoning them — snatched more land.
After disease and war and treaty making, there was government policy: the Indian Removal Act of 1830 sent tribes to “unsettled” lands across the Mississippi. The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 tried to divide remaining Indian lands into parcels for individual Indians to farm, selling the “surplus” un-allotted lands to settlers. The Termination Act of 1953 tried finally to do away with all treaty and contractual relations and obligations with the federal government — freeing up more land to be purchased by Weyerhaeuser Timber and white farmers and ranchers.
There are complex histories of the relationships between today’s Latino and Indian, and among African Americans and American Indians. But what can always be said of native Americans, who remain invisible to many, is that they have defied deliberate attempts to eradicate them. Against all odds, against massive disease outbreaks and repeated injustices, they persevere.
Black lives matter, Indian lives matter, and COVID-19 is teaching us more about the history of both. Any true telling of today’s pandemic and past ones, of our country’s history and vision of our future, must include the original native Americans.
Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively discussion of the West. He is developing the Josephy Library at the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture in Joseph, Oregon.