You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Protecting Native Elders in a Pandemic

“We are who we are because of the people who raised us,” said Deb Haaland, one of two Native women in Congress.

Maturen/Getty Images

The coronavirus has reached every state in the country, and the impact on Indian Country is no different as the virus has spread quickly through tribal nations. Health care systems in Native communities, rural and urban alike, are overwhelmed with staffing and equipment needs. And reporting on the crisis all blares the same dire message: Tribal nations are not prepared for a pandemic of this breadth, and Congress is once again doing too little to help them respond.

This is not a new story. The coronavirus is novel; the fatal fallout from congressional underfunding is not. And so, as this virus continues to spread, it feels important to state the stakes as we see them: Powwows have been canceled, and casinos are closed up; community houses have bolted their doors, and colleges have sent their students home. Tribal economies on the whole are hurting, and the recessionary tail of the pandemic will be long. But even as the economic realities weigh heavy, the face of the crisis remains profoundly human: It’s the risk of losing our elders that has many Native people bracing for impact.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Native elders to their families, tribes, and communities. These are people who fought on the frontlines to withstand American assimilation. They fostered our languages and our traditions. They carry with them stories and memories that will fade when they pass, precious fragments of their tribe’s collective story. But more than being living carriers of cultural knowledge, they’re our parents, our grandparents, aunties, and uncles. As Representative Deb Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico’s 1st District, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna and one of two Native women in Congress, put it to me, “We are who we are because of the people who raised us.”

Speaking with The New Republic by phone on Wednesday evening, Haaland explained that she has been under quarantine since she returned to Albuquerque nearly two weeks ago. Her mother is currently in an assisted living facility on Isleta Pueblo, a 20-minute drive down the road. The facility is under lockdown, so no in-person visitors are allowed, but Haaland said the first thing she plans to do when she’s able to exit her quarantine on Saturday is go to her mother’s window and finally see and speak with her again face to face.

“I think we all worry about our elders, because this virus, it attacks and affects older people in different ways,” she told me. She said she speaks with her mother by phone every day, but it’s an adjustment not to see her in person. “You know what it’s like being on the rez,” she said. “There are multiple generations living in one household, and everybody loves and cares for one another, so that part’s been a little difficult.”

As of Friday morning, there were 89 cases of Covid-19 in the Indian health system and an unknown number outside it. Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, a citizen of White Earth Nation, lost her brother, Ron, to the virus last weekend. Navajo Nation restricted its borders as its cases spiked over the past week, forcing the tribal government to take stock of its Indian Health Services resources: Thirteen ICU beds, 28 ventilators, 52 isolation rooms, and dwindling personal protective equipment for the nation’s 150,000-plus citizens. And while it will be crucial that these resources are bolstered by the tribes and by Congress, the situation has many, like Diné citizen Jana Pfieffer, wondering about much more basic needs, like whether her grandparents will be able to afford an extra supply of groceries. “Our elders are our wisdom holders; they’re our last connection with the generation before them,” Pfeiffer told New Mexico Political Report. That’s what the coronavirus threatens to take from Indian Country—not just our dollars, but our history, our legacy, and our family.

Haaland, whose Marine father traveled often, spent much of her childhood living with her grandparents, first in Arizona and then in the Laguna village of Mesita. She said the experience of living with them was vital to teaching her how to survive with the bare essentials—in Mesita, they hauled water from a spigot in the middle of the village, cooked on a wood stove, took baths in a galvanized tub. But more than that, these extended visits gave her and her siblings an invaluable opportunity to simply be with two Laguna elders who loved them dearly.

“Sometimes we would just live with my grandparents when my dad was gone, because my mom felt it was important we were home,” Haaland said. “And I remember in Winslow, my grandmother was always busy in the kitchen, and so she didn’t want kids running around. She was just moving too fast. So I’d sit outside on top of the picnic table with my hands cupped around my eyes. I would just watch her for hours cooking in the kitchen. And that’s how I learned, by watching her.”

As one of the four Native people with a vote in Congress, Haaland is acutely aware that the actions taken by the federal government will have a direct effect on the current generation of Native elders and their families. Initially, the Native American Caucus, co-chaired by Haaland and Republican Tom Cole, requested $20 billion in overall Indian Country stimulus funding. Haaland said the initial counter from the White House was $3 billion, and on Wednesday, the Senate ultimately landed on a proposal of $10 billion in total. “I can’t even say I’m disappointed,” Haaland said, “because I’m not surprised at all about it.”

This is its own kind of tradition: Scores of Americans, including many members of Congress, have little grasp on treaty responsibilities to tribes, let alone an understanding of tribal sovereignty. It’s difficult, then, for these same people to suddenly concern themselves with Native citizens who lack running water or broadband in the middle of a pandemic, because they don’t track that this is the direct result of colonization and institutional malice. The cyclical, systemic failures like those Indian Country has suffered are hard routines to break, especially when there are only four Native members of Congress, two of them freshmen representatives. “We need to think about the drastic underfunding that tribes have suffered for decades, decades, and decades,” Haaland told me. “And so when I think about what needs to happen, I think about why a lot of tribes are in the predicament they’re in right now. It’s because the U.S. government hasn’t lived up to its trust responsibilities.”

The government response is predictably inadequate, but Haaland said she has seen tribal communities once again rise up to protect and provide for one another. She told me about how her daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, delivers meals to older folks in her neighborhood. She said that on her own morning runs in Albuquerque, she’s been helping folks who need it take out their trash cans. Looking outside of the Haaland family, Oglala Sioux Tribe citizen Vernon Black Eyes started handing out free sanitizer and toilet paper to elders and others in need in Nebraska. The Cherokee Nation set up a hotline to provide updates to its Cherokee-language speakers. The Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians closed their convenience store and sent all the perishable foods to their elders.

During this stressful time, I find myself returning to an essay written last October by Indian Country Today editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, a Diné citizen. In it, Bennett-Begaye writes about her grandmother and how much she now relishes the lost ability to just call her on the phone or watch Wheel of Fortune together. The details are mundane and lovely, an example of what our elders mean to us on a personal, everyday basis. My grandfather, a Sappony man and World War II vet, is 93 years old. A few years ago, I spent several months interviewing him and other older members of my tribe about what life was like before our people integrated into North Carolina and American society. I wanted those stories on record, a testament to our perseverance. And when the pandemic hit, I returned to them. Hearing these stories and keeping them alive for future generations is all we can do; it’s what we should do. But they aren’t what I’ll miss most whenever he’s gone. It’s the conversations in between. When we’ve talked on the phone over the last two weeks, it’s been about N.C. State basketball games that ESPN is replaying, or updates on the black bear that’s been making appearances on his farm. Mainly, it’s just reassuring to hear his voice on the other side of the line and to know he’s still there if I need him. He’s a calming presence. He’s a reminder of what our people can endure and what they can accomplish. But mostly, he’s my grandad. And more than almost anything in the world, I don’t want to lose him.

Survival is its own tradition among our communities, but it will be our elders who will again be forced to withstand the brunt of what this latest crisis has in store. It might be difficult for some people in Congress to trace the path from a random line item in a federal stimulus package all the way down to such a personal representation of what these dollars go to protect, but those are the stakes here. The numbers on the line mean more of the phone calls we make just to hear someone’s voice. They’re an investment in the day, somewhere down the line, when we’ll actually be able to see one another again. They are a future.