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the cultural and public health impact of covid-19 on sioux reservations in south dakota

February 8, 2021


by Claire Anchordoqui, doctoral student in American Studies at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (CAS, EA 801), winner of the 2020-2021 Institut des Amériques-Fulbright award.






While South Dakota and North Dakota were barely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic in the spring and summer 2020, they have been significantly affected by the third wave of contaminations that came in the Fall, becoming the first two US states to have over 100 cases out of 100 000 residents. The finger points to the two Republican governors Douglas J. Burgum and Kristi Noem who refused to put lockdown measures in place or impose wearing a mask in public places. On the other end of these non-measures, the tribal governments of the various Native American reservations in both States very quickly imposed lockdowns and wearing the mask on their lands in order to protect their communities seriously hit by the pandemic.

Kristi Noem (South Dakota), 2020 © Wikipedia
Kristi Noem (South Dakota), 2020 © Wikipedia

Indeed, as a bitter reminder of the darkest days of the colonization of the Americas, the covid-19 pandemic hit the indigenous populations living on the continent full force (see article by Lionel Larré, as well as Felipe Castro Gutiérrez and Guillaume Gaudin's on this blog). In the United States, Native American populations are the most impacted. In September 2020, a CDC study led by 23 states estimated that they were 3.5 times more likely to be contaminated than the white population. The reason, a lack of access to medical products needed for prevention, living conditions that are sometimes difficult on the reservation (a result of centuries of colonization and discrimination) and a healthcare system that is not sufficient to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.


These numbers, already very worrisome, are not really showing the full extent of the situation. Lacking adequate statistical data on the impact of the pandemic on indigenous populations, a shortfall deemed a "national disgrace" by Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee, researcher at Seattle Indian Health Board), the federal government was unable to provide a response equal to the needs of the Indian Nations. This meant tribal governments and tribal hospitals left to fend for themselves, attempting to limit the consequences while making do with what they had.


In South Dakota in April 2020, the Cheyenne River and Oglala Lakota Sioux tribes put blockades in place at the entrance of the reservations to limit travel and the spread of the virus within their respective communities (see similar measures put in place by the Navajo Nation). These checkpoints irritated the Republican governor, Kristi Noem who called on Donald Trump to force their retreat. The governor's reason was that it was an "illegal" obstruction of major federal thoroughfares that crossed the Native lands. The tribes for their part were leaning on their sovereign right to control their borders. Refusing to concede and finding itself at an impasse, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe sued the federal government at the start of summer 2020 for negligence with respect to the Indian Nations sovereignty and the health of its citizens. What brought it about was the attempts at intimidation by the federal authorities who threatened to hold back government aid meant to fight against covid-19 if the checkpoints were not removed. In 2021, while the legal proceedings are on-going, the checkpoints are still in place on the Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge reservations.

On top of a public health and economic crisis, the covid-19 pandemic will have exposed, at least in the Dakotas, a diplomatic crisis between the tribal governments and the two states'. The relationship between the two different governmental bodies has never been simple, the region being a place where Native resistance was strong, where the Wounded Knee massacre left an imprint at the end of the 19th century and more recently with the power struggles between Native militants and the police, particularly the huge gathering again organized, not by coincidence, at Wounded Knee in 1973.


Recently, the confrontations between the regional and federal authorities and the Water Protectors around the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline in the north of the Standing Rock reservation has rekindled these tensions and exacerbated the Indian Nations' distrust in the federal and state governments.

The totally different way of apprehending the pandemic adopted by the South Dakota governor and the tribal governments is another example of this fracture. These tensions had a negative impact on the effectiveness of the measures taken by the tribes to control the spread of the virus within their communities. The Native population of the state was disproportionally hit compared to the rest of the population: 13% of deaths in the State while the Native population represents less than 9% of the total population.


On top of the physical loss of their most vulnerable citizens, the Indian Nations also lost a lot of the pillars in their communities: their elders, holders and defenders of the tribes' traditional wisdom (see Lionel Larré's article in this blog). Among them, the passing away of Jesse and Cheryl Taken Alive, elders of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who died one month apart at the end of 2020. Jesse, called "Lala Jay" (grandfather Jay) by his students, was the former president of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and taught the Lakota language and culture at the McLaughlin school. Actively involved in the fight for the cultural preservation of his tribe, in this way he takes a bit of history from his Nation, for sure a story marred with difficulties, but mostly resistance and resilience.

The loss of elders such as the Taken Alive is unfortunately not an isolated case. While covid-19 is particularly virulent among the elderly, its impact on the Indian Nations is all the more catastrophic since their survival partially depends on those who speak the language and who can transmit to the youth the community's history and codes. The loss of an elder is not just the loss of a person, but of a vast fountain of knowledge.


Confronted with these challenges, organizations such as Cultural Survival and Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) have worked out solutions to protect Native communities as best as they can and give them access to the vaccine as soon as possible. In their 2021 report "Strengthening Vaccine Efforts in Indian Country", UIHI notes that the responsability for the protection of its tribe and its culture are elements that are strongly inducing Native Americans to get vaccinated. In all, they are more willing to be vaccinated: 75% against 64% in the rest of the US population.


Since mid-December, the arrival of vaccine doses on Native lands has enabled the South Dakota reservations to start massive vaccination campaigns. The tribal authorities were able to choose to be supplied by the federal government via the Indian Health Service or directly by South Dakota's healthcare services. No surprise there, most of the tribes opted for the federal distribution because of the differing opinions and methods of Governor Kristi Noem. Priority is clearly given to cultural preservation: at Standing Rock and in other communities, for example, the tribal authorities decided to first vaccinated those who speak fluently Dakota and Lakota. This shows how much the cultural protection of Indian Nations is important and urgent. While the rate of infection is clearly downward in South Dakota since the start of the vaccination campaign, the Native tribes remain vigilant and are redoubling their efforts to block the effects of the public health crisis in their communities.

Claire Anchordoqui is a doctoral student in American Studies at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (CAS, EA 801), under the co-direction of Dr. Lionel Larré and Dr. Anne Stefani. She is working on the evolution of education and teaching of history at the Lakota tribes in South Dakota.