This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Facing COVID-19 in a Native community

Photo: Jayshaun Bigback (left) and Daejae Spotted Elk give out food to elders in the community from Voices of the Sacred, a nonprofit run by Krystal Two Bulls, executive director. Photo by Krystal Two Bulls

This article comes from the June issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “Community in the face of COVID-19.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.

At the beginning of March, I was planning to travel to Vancouver, British Columbia, for a work trip. COVID-19 had hit the large U.S. cities but was being labeled as another version of the seasonal flu. I did laundry and packed. My dad, with whom I live, said he thought I should cancel my trip because of the virus. I didn’t take him that seriously. I thought I was healthy and could fight the virus if I got it. Then my dad got serious and insisted.

I had been so clueless and individualistic. He said, “It’s not really about you.” He explained that it was about me bringing the virus to my community and the elders and, because I travel so often, how much responsibility I have to make good decisions not just about my health but the health of an entire community. He told me stories his parents had shared about when tuberculosis had come through the reservation. They remembered wagons lined up at the graveyard to bury their loved ones. It did not take me long to think about smallpox and how it came to Indigenous people with the arrival of Europeans.

I canceled my trip and have been home since March 1.

In many ways, the pandemic has not changed much on the reservation. The Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana where I live went into lockdown early and closed its borders to nonresidents. We now have a curfew, and strict limitations were placed on the major highway that runs through the reservation. We still have economic poverty, little access to health care, one grocery store and all the pre-existing health conditions that would make it horrible if COVID-19 hit our community. We are also still being erased and forgotten in statistics and relief efforts, and the government is still trying to take land and allow pipelines that are deemed essential during this time.

There is no place I would rather be than in my home community during this pandemic. Nothing in this world is perfect, but this is the place of my memories and the community I know will take care of me and my family. When so many people were hoarding for themselves, many of my friends were collecting food for elders. When many people were panicking and predicting the end of the world, people here erected prayer teepees and went to the sweat lodge. People volunteered to do night patrol on the reservation to keep the community safe, and the grocery store instituted elder hours. One organization posted on Facebook elders telling traditional stories. We practiced our tribal sovereignty in new ways to keep our spirits alive because if there is one thing we know, it’s uncertainty. We know how our ancestors lived off the buffalo and relied on them for food. We know of 500 years of colonization that led to the systematic killing of our ways of life and our food sources. We know what it is to heed history and survive and thrive.

During this pandemic, I have reflected on the use of language. Words in the media do not fit my reality. Words such as “uncertain” bring anxiety to the spirit. When has life ever been certain? Or when have my privileges allowed me to think life was certain? I hear language that blames people of color for the injustices that have led to the conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.

A Native American does not become diabetic out of thin air. It is a result of years of being moved from traditional food sources, the systematic killing of lean bison meat, giving high calorie rations/commodities, reservations that are food deserts and with no access to traditional ways of eating. But if I listened only to the news, I might blame my people or myself for years of systemic oppression.

My hope and prayer is that we all recognize that the nature of life is uncertainty and that some of us do not have the privilege to access more certainty. Can we hold that reality while also holding onto the deep feelings that arise out of the pandemic and allow for both to be true at the same time?

Erica Littlewolf is the Indigenous Visioning Circle Program coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee Central States and lives on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

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