Indians Matter

Of course “Black Lives Matter”! And bringing attention to the large numbers of deaths by police and the cases and deaths by COVID-19 among African-Americans is the right thing to do. The press has gone some way towards reporting the heavy impact of the disease on the Latinx population as well. In both cases, 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 examined.

But what about the Indians?

The New York Times has had a few pieces on the Navajo Nation, and they are now a separate item on worldometers continuing graphic updates (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/). With a population of just 173,667, the Nation has 6,611 confirmed cases and 311 deaths attributed to the virus as of June 16. That is more than 3,650 cases per 100,000 people — a higher per-capita rate than anywhere in the U.S. For comparison, New York is at 2,082 cases per 100,000 people. Put another way, at that rate Oregon would have over 160,000 COVID cases and 7,500 deaths.

But coverage of the Navajo Nation is sporadic, and I can find almost no coverage of other tribal situations. I know from following Idaho news that the Nez Perce Reservation had a recent spike, and I know from a friend that the Yakama Reservation in Washington also had a surge. It seems to me that NPR interviewed an Indian from South Dakota, or was it North Dakota?

I do know that 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 the 16th century fishermen along the Atlantic coast to the near extirpation of the Cayuse in the 1840s, and they continued to be damaging among tribes through the twentieth century. Charles Mann argues strongly in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, that diseases attacks on Indians had a genetic component. And, according to Indian friends, there are strong tribal memories of the 1918 flu—and that generational memory has some living in fear today.

Alvin Josephy said that when we are not lying about Indian history and Indians in American history we are omitting them. It’s been a long hard road that Euro-Americans have traveled over and around Indians. Most of it has had to do with land. They had it and we wanted it. Disease killed off Squanto’s people and the Puritans arrived to caches of food and an empty landscape. From King Philip’s War to the Nez Perce War, combat with superior firearms took more land. And when war didn’t work, treaties—and a continued rewriting of or abandoning them—took 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; and 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.

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There are complex histories of the relationships among today’s Latinx and Native Americans, and among African Americans and American Indians—stories too long, and ones I don’t know well enough to trace in short paragraphs. But Indians are still here, still invisible to many, but still here.

And Indian lives matter; Indians matter. Any true tellings of today’s pandemic and past ones, of our country’s history and vision of our future, must include the original—still misnamed—Indians.

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Rich,
    Thanks much for this thoughtful and moving piece. It remains a sad commentary that Native Americans, both in their historic and current suffering and in the richness of their cultural, spiritual, and artistic traditions remain too often forgotten.

    I’m Seth Kinzie’s father and, in addition, I want to thank you very much for the loan of “With One Sky Above Us” based on Dr. Latham’s photographs and details about Native lives over a century ago. I was raised in Tonasket, WA and recently have begun correspondence with a remarkable Okanogan Indian school-mate (class of 1957), Bernice Cohen, now residing in Oahu, HI. For me, personally, this reaching out, sharing, and learning from her has been something of a healing journey. I cannot fully imagine how difficult it was and how alienating it must have felt to be the sole Indigenous woman in our high school, where whiteness was (and is still) assumed to be the true standard (as Isabel Wilkerson’s, “Caste,” so brilliantly delineates).

    Thanks, again. With appreciation for your work and best hopes for your health in these difficult months, Steve

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