A proud rez girl from Lame Deer, Montana, Dr. Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear reflects on the difficult week her Northern Cheyenne Reservation community endures as they mourn the death of a 33 year-old father, husband, and tribal member to COVID-19. “The impact of his death is just…I don’t know how we’re going to get over this one… I don’t know how we’re going to get through this one.”
American Indian tribal nations in Montana are inherent sovereign nations possessing autonomous powers, separate and independent from the federal and state governments. Despite this sovereignty, tribal nations are inextricably interconnected with the very governments and their unequal power structures they are legally independent from. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the state’s mishandling of it, has threatened the preservation of culture, language, and traditions of these diverse sovereign nations.
“Overcoming COVID is going to really require the dismantling of all of these systems of oppression that have enabled the virus to kill so many people of color. It’s very clear that the experience of COVID is absolutely stratified along economic, racial, and geographic lines,” says Dr. Rodriguez-Lonebear, an Assistant Professor at UCLA Department of Sociology and a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, located in present-day southeastern Montana.
According to The Atlantic’s COVID-19 Tracking Project, the American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) community makes up 6% of Montana’s population, however accounts for 13% of COVID-19 cases and 28% of deaths. This disparity in COVID-19 related deaths is not exclusive to Montana. Nationwide, Black, American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN), and Hispanic/Latino populations are seeing alarmingly higher death rates relative to white populations.
The below chart shows deaths per 100,000 people by race in the United States.
When looking at the state of Montana in isolation, the case rates become even more alarming for the AIAN population, as seen in the chart below.
The chart above shows the disturbing case rate in the AIAN community; 9,686 per 100,000 people are contracting the virus. This rate is twice that of Montana’s white population and nearly 3x that of the US white population average.
When looking at specific tribal nation data, death rates for the AIAN population become inconceivable. The Northern Cheyenne Reservation has 11,266 enrolled tribal members with about 5,012 residing on the reservation. As of December 11th, the reservation has seen 863 cumulative cases, and 36 deaths. There are 172 cases of COVID-19 per 1,000 tribal reservation members, an alarming number compared to 45 cases per 1,000 for white people.
Erasure of American Indians in Data Collection
Dr. Rodriguez-Lonebear understands the impact of having access to and control over indigenous data. As part of a lifelong sovereign indigeous data commitment, she founded the Data Warriors Lab – an Indigenous social science laboratory and is co-founder of the U.S. Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network – a collective dedicated to ensuring that data for and about Indigenous nations and peoples in the U.S. (American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians) are utilized to advance Indigenous aspirations for collective and individual wellbeing.
“What we’re seeing within these publicly available data sets are just a snapshot of what’s actually happening on the ground. That’s largely because of the fact that these data sets being collected by county, state, and federal agencies have a long history of misclassifying, miscounting, and not counting indigenous peoples in this country. The urgency of the situation is even greater than what the data are telling us. And what the data are telling us is terrifying and shocking. In Montana, natives are dying at almost 12x the rate of white people in this state. If that doesn’t shock you, I don’t know what will.”
The need for up-to date and accurate, tribal specific data is dire. Among many things, the pandemic has illuminated for many inside the margins the crippling inequity that plagues this country. In the past, we have seen the harmful impacts of inaccurate, incomplete, and flawed tribal population data, such as the Census. The Census directly impacts funding levels for tribal communities and failure to accurately and consistently account for the nuances in American Indian data leads to long-lasting and complex health, education, and economic inequities.
The chart below shows the sharp rise of COVID-19 cases and deaths of AIAN peoples in Montana.
Although the data collected from the COVID-19 tracking project does a great job collecting data across state agencies, there is still a need for stronger data collection for AIAN communities.
“There is a significant problem with the lack of tribal identifiers in a lot of these covid data sets which is a symptom of a much larger issue where tribal identifiers are not being collected in administrative data sets that aren’t coming out of administrative agencies. Without having the ability to identify your tribal affiliation, or the ability to identify that you are an enrolled citizen of a tribal nation, tribal nations have difficult time figuring out the magnitude of all sorts of crisis and issues on their population,” says Dr. Lonebear when asked about the most dangerous consequences of gaps in data collection.
Another major issue with the misreporting of data is the inability to account for the unique cultural components of the nations. “Native populations are highly mobile populations. There is this constant flow on and off reservations in and out of urban and rural areas. In the middle of a pandemic, with a communicable disease like this, the inability to track that type of movement in these data systems – for example people accessing care through tribal or indian health service facilities or being tested there, but also accessing and being tested off the reservations, and those systems aren’t linked together – that’s a real problem.”
Risk factors from reservations to hospitals
The lack of data infrastructure isn’t the only issue Indigenous groups are facing. At the Fort Peck reservation, located in the extreme northeast corner of Montana, the Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes are losing about one member a day to COVID, according to Kaci Wallette, a Registered Nurse who worked at North Montana Health Service Poplar Community Hospital and serves as a second term Council Women on the Fortpeck Assiniboine Sioux Tribal Executive Board.
As the most rural reservation in Montana, one of the greatest challenges, according to Kelli, has been the limited capacity at the community hospitals and the distance between hospitals, which is about a four and a half to five hour drive. Kelli describes the pressures of working with COVID patients at a community hospital with limited capacity. “We had to call six different hospitals to try and find a bed for a recently admitted patient. That was in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and finally the University of Utah had an open bed for him. That weekend that I worked, we flew out nine patients, and that was just night shifts, that wasn’t counting the day shifts. So for a community of 3,500 and we are flying out nine patients over three days, with a staff of three nurses and one doctor, and an ambulance crew, which I think they were going on ten calls a day… it’s just very overwhelming our rural community.”
Finding a bed for COVID patients to be treated on in these communities is only half that battle. The recovery and rehabilitation process is a long one, according to Kelli. “Once patients get flown out, it’s a long tedious recovery. Patients usually require physical therapy because when they’re on the vent, muscle mass deteriorates pretty rapidly. When patients get off the vent, they don’t remember because they’ve been sedated for so long. Patients are having to go to a long term care facility to teach them how to walk again and rebuild their muscles. That’s another challenge we’re facing because we don’t have those long term care facilities around this area. That means longer time away from their family. It’s a big burden, I think, to catch it and then have to try to recover by yourself. You have to be a very strong person to want to recover and make it back to your family once you get flown out. Patients have a long road of recovery ahead of them.”
A team of Indigenous researchers at UCLA and the University of Arizona, which includes Dr.Rodriguez-Lonebear, identified the key risk factors, aside from the legacy of an oppressive colonial statehood, contributing to the alarming COVID-19 infection and death rates. These include lack of complete indoor plumbing, access to running water, access to relevant information in Indigenous languages, and overcrowding in the home. The research outlines what measures must be in place in order to protect American Indian communities from COVID-19 and future pandemics, tribal communities must have access to potable water, culturally-relevant information via community preferred media, and strengthening of tribal public health and household infrastructure as delineated in government treaties and other agreements.
Preserving American Indian Culture
As sovereign nations which have been historically erased from the public sphere, there is a dangerous existential threat to American Indians and their histories, memory, and culture.
Nitakechi Hυshitomi, a reconnecting Native and founder of the Organization for Indigenous Autonomy from Peoria, Illinois shares what he believes the implications of the virus means for the culture of indigenous peoples. “I believe that our culture is at risk, specifically language and religious practices. Native American societies in general are less of a written history people as we rely heavily on oral tradition being passed down by elders. As elders are called to the creator, we lose that much more of our histories.”
Kelli shares a similar sentiment when considering the long-lasting impact of COVID-19 on the community. “The demographic that we’re seeing hit hardest on our reservation is the 45-65 year old male population. That age group carries a lot of cultural aspects of our reservation. Any member loss does because that’s part of our history. That is another challenge that we are struggling with right now.”
Kelli believes that a culture of shame and embarrassment around the virus is also what is causing this group of tribal men to die at higher rates. “As a tribe, we’ve been trying to push the message out to everybody to not be ashamed if you catch this… it is nothing to be ashamed of. Let people know so we can provide services and support.”
Dr. Rodriguez-Lonebear shares “We are losing elders, some of our last language speakers who hold so much knowledge around ceremonies and way of life. We are just really approaching a crisis point that is going to become increasingly more urgent to really think about how we are going to perpetuate our cultures and way of life… because without that, who are we as indigenous peoples?”
Grieving the community
The collective grief felt by the community expands beyond generations and reservations. Alongside the rise of distance learning, celebration and concerts, there has also been a rise in distance mourning, recoveries and funerals. This is causing deteriorating mental health and will continue to be a major health crisis for communities all around the globe in the coming years.
For indigeouns people, grieving elders and members of the tribe at a distance has already begun to take a toll on the survivors. As an interconnected community, Dr. Rodriguez-Lonebear considers how this survivor’s guilt and trauma shouldered by those adjacent to lives lost will impact collective memory and healing. “What we’re not talking about is the toll that this is going to take on our collective ability as indigenouns peoples to heal our collective memory and a whole different realm of intergenerational trauma that we’re going to experience from this. We can’t mourn the dead like our cultural protocols require us to do. We can’t sing our people home who have passed on. We can’t gather in the ways that we have always gathered from the very beginning of time and try to survive.”
As a stark contrast to the individualistic nature of American culture, the interconnected nature of Indigenous peoples has allowed for the suregence of collective action and community support. At Fort Peck Reservation, Kelli shares the community currently offers food boxes for those who are on quarantine. The affected members get a food box once a week for quarantined individuals and their households. The reservation has also partnered with the CDC which is helping the tribe with daily incident reports and media campaigns. John Hopkins University is also on the ground helping with efforts for households that don’t have phone access, checking in on the vulnerable populations that are on quarantine, and providing money for folks to purchase thermometers. Lastly, the tribe is working with the local hospital, Northeast Montana Health Service to purchase bulk orders of over-the-counter medication including zinc, vitamin d, mucinex, tylenol, and vix vaporub to include in weekly food packages.”
A Path Forward
Through his community centered foundation Organization for Indigenous Autonomy, Hushitomi is working to preserve the past and present of indigenous communities in Montana. The aim is to ensure a fruitful future for indigenous peoples through a commitment to sovereignty and collective action. Hυshitomi shares in an email, “The OIA is a group designed to promote land sovereignty in the Native American, Hispanic/Chicano/Latinx, and Pacific Islander communities. We advocate and work towards the establishment of sovereign Native nations. We believe that the American, Canadian, and other settler governments were designed to slaughter, oppress, and disenfranchise the communities we serve. Our network works with various movements dedicated to sovereignty, both Indigenous lead and otherwise.”
A future of sovereign, yet networked indigenous data collection and archival preservation project is also already in the works thanks to Dr. Rodriguez-Lonebear. “One of the things I’m involved with right now is figuring out how to build an integrated data system for my tribe, The Northern Cheyenne Nation. How can we develop a true data system that links together all the data sets that we have on our tribal members and our tribal citizens across all federal agencies, across all the different services that are being provided, across the different healthcare systems that are being accessed. Taking a big picture approach to ‘what does an integrated tribal data system look like’ and ‘how do we build it’ and ‘what is that going to take?’ Right now I’m in feasibility study with my nation trying to figure that out. It’s a hard thing, it’s a big ask, but we know we’re going to need that moving forward to be able to protect and serve our citizens.”
Lastly, Kelli shares how her tribe’s re-engagement with cultural customs of previous generations has been a silver-lining of the pandemic. “One good thing that i’m seeing is the resurgence of some of our medicinal plants and roots coming into play; smudging up our house, bare root tea, sweetgrass. Some of those medicinal herbs and remedies that we relied on for generations are now coming back. That is a part of the culture that we’re regaining.”