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Covid-19 and native americans in the united states: when history repeats itself

July 20, 2020


by Lionel Larré, Professor of American Civilization at the Université Bordeaux Montaigne (CLIMAS).



In the history of the colonization of the Americas, whether in the North or in the South, epidemics have made more victims among Indigenous peoples than armed conflicts with the colonists[1].


Measles, cholera, and smallpox may have decimated up to 70% of the Native American population, due to lacking an immune system ready to confront these new viruses.

Some historians, however, explore and consider other causes for the deficient immunity to explain why so many Native Americans were victims of the epidemics. The cruel conditons of the colonization - deportations, slavery, famine, etc. - have fostered the spread of the viruses and the emergence of contamination clusters:  social distancing measures were difficult to respect in the slave quarters of the Californian missions and in the internment camps in which the army parked Native Americans before a manu militari deportation! Furthermore, many federal policies regarding Native Americans, such as the one that consisted in putting them on reservations to the detriment of ancient ways of life, had social and economic consequences (poverty, demoralization, etc.) which could certainly create ideal conditions for developing new epidemics.

These consequences are still true today. The social-economic inequalities of which Native American populations are victims come from treaties that were scorned by the federal government, who did not uphold its part financially in the duly signed treaties. Decrepit and overpopulated housing, insufficient medical infrastructures, problems with access to running water or access to water contaminated by the foring of mining operations, in short, at times miserable living conditions stem from the US government's failure to respect its obligations. According to Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, on their end Native Americans have respected their part of the contract and helped the federal government when needed. Territories have been ceded, many Native American soldiers have filled the ranks of the American army. They are expecting the same kind of help that the other fifty soverain States of the federation have received.


The destruction of traditional systems of subsistance and nutrition also explains why the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases in the United States - all providing fertile ground to Covid-19 - are found among Native American populations.

So, when in the first months of 2020 President Trump swept aside the warnings of the WHO and his own country's specialists, and recommended swallowing bleach to fix the problem, Native Americans immediately took the threat seriously. What followed proved them right.


At the end of May, the infection rate in the Navajo Nation had surpassed New York State and New Jersey, then the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. In the smaller communities, such as the Pueblos of New Mexico, the infection rates were even higher. In some States, the Covid-19 mortality rates are up to ten times higher among Native Americans than Euro-Americans. 


In the large expanses of the American West, social distancing measures are paradoxically very difficult to apply (see article published on this topic on the blog). Lacking the means to build housing, often large families of 15 to 20 people live in the same house, and food distribution centers are rare. The Navajo territory, as big as West Virginia, only has thirteen supermarkets.


Along with the health disaster, there are huge fears of a cultural catastrophe. In some groups, an elder who dies could mean a language, an oral history, and traditions that weaken all the more so. This is how doctor Michelle Tom, from the Winslow Navajo hospital, describes it: "If we lose our elders, what are we as a people?".


Of course, the crisis also touches those who are called "urban Indians", Native Americans who live in the big cities. Those also suffer from social conditions propitious to infections, but for them there is the added invisibility that unfortunately is typical. The ethnic identity of many of them is either unknown, or wrong. So, it is likely that the case count of Native Americans is largely underestimated.


Faced with this situation, Native Americans did not wait for hypothetical help from a federal government whose handling of the crisis at the national level has been disastrous, before taking action. Sovereign of their territories, they organized themselves and fight with the means available, with a strong feeling that they will survive this crisis as they survived the previous ones. In South Dakota, the Cheyenne and Oglala Nations, following the refusal of the pro-Trump Republican governor to take lockdown measures, set up roadblocks in order to limit traffic of outside populations going toward their territories. Though they were firmly told they could not block federal roads that crossed their lands, the Navajos prevented tourists from stopping or going on secondary roads. Among the Navajos and others, the community net very quickly mobilized.


Unexpected help sometimes reaches these devastated territories. In order to change the tune a bit, in the middle of the numerous reports on the tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic on Native American populations, some newspapers talked about the help many Irish citizens provided, in return for the help the Choctaw Nation had given them in the 19th century. In 1847, the Choctaws, a short time after their deportation, had sent 170 dollars (equivalent today to 5000 dollars) to the Irish who were suffering from the Great Famine. During the 1995 commemoration of the Great Famine, the Irish were reminded of this story. This year, gifts of hundreds of thousands of dollars were sent by the Irish to the organizations that were helping the Navajos and the Hopis, explaining that what goes around, comes around.

[1] This is also true for Latin America, see Covid-19, isolated indigenous peoples and the history of the Amazon, The Conversation, April 21, 2020. 

Lionel Larré is a Professor of American Civilization at the research lab CLIMAS. He is the author of Histoire de la nation cherokee (Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2014). He is the President of Université Bordeaux Montaigne.