Assaulted by massacres, smallpox, uranium mining, and pipelines Native Tribes are standing up for their rights on COVID-19 protection
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Native Americans have largely been left out of the conversation about COVID-19 even though they have some of the highest infection rates in the country. They’ve been here before; with massacres, smallpox, pipelines, and the ravages of uranium mining whose radioactive releases compromise immune systems.
“We have an 80% unemployment rate,” said Milo Yellow Hair, who lives on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, one of nine which make up the Lakota Nation.
I made him repeat it. That was eight zero. Not one eight. Eighty. In America. Today.
It’s a symbol, to put it mildly, of several centuries of neglect, discrimination and persecution.
The Lakota Nation today contends with a chronic and widespread lack, not only of employment, but of other fundamental rights like running water, electricity, and adequate health care. Its communities are beset with high rates of poverty, alcoholism, drug use and domestic violence. These constitute the legacy of occupations, displacements, massacres, smallpox, fights for freedom crushed, and the imposition of ecosystem-destroying oil and gas pipelines.
Most significantly, perhaps, it is an inevitable result of the harmful legacy of exposures from uranium mining, unique to Native American communities, and which have had a devastating effect on health.
And now there’s COVID-19.
And yet, while some media attention has focused on the disproportionate COVID-19 infection and death rates among African American and Latinx populations, there was almost no mention at the outset of its effect on Native American communities.
Gradually that has begun to change as a handful of reporters and broadcasters — mainly from overseas-based media outlets — are covering the Native American story. One such investigation revealed that coronavirus infection rates were so high on the Navajo Nation, even as early as mid-April, that it could have been ranked third in the country for confirmed cases per 100,000 population.
In response, the Navajo Nation has set up a relief fund to cope with the impact of the pandemic and address immediate medical and community needs.
A Guardian story also revealed how Native American COVID-19 cases were being buried under the label of “other” in official counts, while African Americans and Latinx received their own categories. This effectively under-counted the population, or failed to count them at all as an identifiable group, limiting an appropriate response and access to resources.
It was also an uncomfortable reminder of the “otherness” that Native American tribes have been forced to feel and endure; “that age old question,” as Yellow Hair put it, of whether Native Americans were still viewed as “less than human.” That they don’t count. So why should they actually be counted?
But when media attention turned to South Dakota, it focused on a familiar trope: The uppity Indian. As members of the Cheyenne River Sioux and the Oglala Sioux each attempted to enforce COVID-19 health check points at their reservation boundaries, they were met with ultimata challenging their right to protect their own people. It was just another standoff with Indians.
As Yellow Hair put it, Indian activism is seen as a threat; an attempt to exercise rightful sovereignty; not knowing your place.
Trying to keep them in that place of submission is the South Dakota governor, Republican Kristi Noem, who has threatened to go to court to force the Sioux to drop their coronavirus checkpoints.
On May 20, Governor Noem announced that she had “directed South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to collect evidence about the tribes’ ‘unlawful checkpoints’ and turned that evidence over to the U.S. Department of Justice,” according to the Argus Leader. Noem also appealed directly to the Trump White House for help in stopping the checkpoints.
Unsurprisingly, Noem is also a staunch supporter of the Dakota Access Pipeline, scene of a months-long standoff at Standing Rock, including through bitter winter conditions, as Indigenous peoples and supporters from across the country and the world endeavored to block the pipeline plan. The encampments at Standing Rock were met with armed soldiers, police in riot gear, and the use of water cannons in freezing weather. The pipeline began operating in May 2017.
Yellow Hair recalled the menacing response of a previous South Dakota governor, Bill Janklow, when he was still the state Attorney General, saying of American Indian Movement leader, Dennis Banks, “The way to deal with Dennis Banks is with a bullet between the eyes.”
No bullets have been fired, yet, but, as Yellow Hair points out, Governor Noem appears not to know that the state of South Dakota rejected Public Law 280, which would have allowed South Dakota criminal jurisdiction over Indian reservations. Public Law 280, which handed federal jurisdiction over to states, did not, when enacted, include tribal consent.
With Public Law 280 unadopted by South Dakota, the Lakota Nation leadership views itself as acting fully within its sovereign rights in establishing, and enforcing, border checkpoints. And essential.
Cheyenne River Sioux chairman, Harold Frazier, issued a statement to Governor Noem on May 8 in which he stated; “We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death.”
“Border monitoring is so important,” agrees Yellow Hair. And it has been working. There are so far only a few cases on the Lakota reservations, a stark contrast to the epidemic ravaging the Navajo Nation. But they know, given the many other deprivations, that the situation could change. The Oglala Sioux tribe also has its own Covid-19 disaster relief fund, anticipating the dire needs that will arise should the coronavirus take hold there.
The relief funds will likely be sorely needed as the Trump administration is now poised “to deny critical COVID-19 relief to dozens and perhaps hundreds of tribes who have been forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to secure the funds they were promised more than two months ago,” reports Indianz. Another broken promise. Another day in Indian country.
In its statement, the Oglala Sioux point out: “The Oglala Sioux Tribe is the poorest county in the United States and one of the poorest Indian Reservations in the Nation,” and added: “Unfortunately, like many Indian Reservations, the Oglala Sioux Tribe must advocate for these needs more aggressively than States. We are sometimes overlooked.”
More than “sometimes.”
Yellow Hair and other Native American leaders, recognize that their communities embody almost every vulnerability factor listed by medical authorities identifying those sectors of society likely to be most susceptible to — and least able to survive — COVID-19.
But unlike other sensitive populations, the one big overlooked factor for Native Americans may well be those decades of exposure to the toxins released by uranium mining.
These, of course, include uranium itself, and its decay products, all of which have known negative health impacts, ranging from leukemia, kidney disease and lung cancer to low birth weights. These latter can lead, later in life, to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity.
All of which afflict Native Americans at disproportionately high rates compared to other sectors of society. Immunodeficiency in particular, a significant outcome of these exposures, may well have contributed to the rapid rise of COVID-19 infections in the Navajo Nation.
But without a hint of shame, as the Phoenix New Times reported, “At the end of March, two uranium companies penned a letter to President Donald Trump asking for a $150 million bailout, citing the economic impacts of COVID-19. One of them was Energy Fuels Resources, which hopes to open a uranium mine south of the Grand Canyon and whose exploratory operations already have led to it trucking radioactive water across the Navajo Nation.”
Uranium mining, and the forcible imposition of pipelines, are manifestations of the historic and ongoing disregard for Native American rights, sovereignty and dignity. Riding roughshod over Native Americans, physically and legislatively, exemplifies what Yellow Hair describes as a “painful relationship from the past until now.” Native Americans are, on the one hand, treated as subhuman, but at the same time there is this sense of White entitlement, “that they can exploit our resources,” he said.
And disregard their safety and well-being. During a recent incident at a health checkpoint, a non-Native truck driver demanded he be allowed through because, as he reportedly yelled, “I’m an American!”
“They see themselves as superior and don’t have to listen to tribal laws,” Yellow Hair said. “But we have people who are highly decorated military veterans,” Yellow Hair continued. “They sacrificed for country. Those truck drivers don’t have that personal investment in the ideal of what makes the US.”
Headline photo: Oglala Sioux Lakota Nation flag, by Aleks_Shutter/Shutterstock