Good news and Bad News in Indian Country

Friends texted and emailed me this yesterday to tell me that Mary Peltola, a Yup’ik
Alaskan Native, had won election in her state for the short remainder of a congressional term. She’ll run again for a full term in the fall. Even the short term marks a win for the Democrats, for women, and for Natives. And I will add her name to the celebratory list of Native achievements and achievers that I seem to be assembling—Chuck Sams, head of the National Park Service; Jaime Pinkham at the Defense Department; Shelly Lowe at the National Endowment for the Humanities; Marilynn Malerba, Treasurer of the United States; and Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior.

Unfortunately, the same New York Times that announced Peltola’s victory also said that “Native Americans and Alaska Natives have been nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized with Covid and more than twice as likely to die of it.” Although overall life expectancy fell—by three years—across America in Covid’s wake, life expectancy for Native Americans and Alaska Natives fell by six and a half years. It shortened to 65 years during the first two years of the pandemic.

The Times article talked about poverty, the lack of clean drinking water and medical and educational attention among indigenous tribes and nations. It noted multi-generational housing that was often crowded housing, and thus sure and easy paths for viruses to move from family to family and generation to generation in many indigenous communities.

All this struck another chord with me, and sent me back to one of my basic modern environmental history texts, 1491, New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. After a long discussion of the role of “virginity” in the face of measles and smallpox and other European viral and bacterial diseases, author Charles Mann footnotes a 2004 study on infectious diseases on “helper-T cells,” which “help the immune system recognize foreign objects… helper-T cells occur in two main types, one that targets microorganisms and one that targets parasites.” Adult immune systems, he goes on, “tend to be skewed toward one or the other, usually depending on whether as children they were more often exposed to microorganisms or parasites. Indians have historically been burdened by flukes, tapeworms, and nematodes, so they have long had majorities of parasite fighting helper-T cells.” Europeans and Euro-Americans are the opposite.

This might seem like a small thing, a biological oddity that played some role in the decimation of indigenous peoples by European diseases hundreds of years ago. But for me it summons the fear that I still feel in Native friends for epidemic diseases. I know that tribal members on the nearby Umatilla Reservation in Oregon and Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho had generational memories of the 1918 flu pandemic. One elder told me clearly about his grandmother’s account of 1918. The Umatilla closed travel at least once during the current pandemic as the Rez—and the entire Umatilla County—had higher rates of infection than did the rest of the state. Several tribal members I know were infected.

I want to and will continue to celebrate the accomplishments of Native people. I congratulate Mary Peltola and hope fervently that she wins a full term. I will follow Deb Haaland’s remarkable journey as the Secretary of the Interior, and praise Joe Biden for his Native appointments.

At the same time, I see another chapter in generational racism and poverty, and want to know more about the intersection of biology and genetics with disease—and with the ways we treat people who carry undue burdens from all of the above. If we learn more, we can do more to reduce the harm of current health hazards and of the next pandemic.

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