Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Pandemic is killing tribal elders, leaving cultural gaps

Pallbearers carry the casket of Jesse Taken Alive, a Lakota elder of the Standing Rock Tribe
in South Dakota, who died of Covid-19 in December. (New York Times photo by Victor Blue)

As the coronavirus pandemic tears through Native American communities, tribal elders are being killed off, "inflicting an incalculable toll on bonds of language and tradition that flow from older generations to the young," Jack Healy reports for The New York Times. "The loss of tribal elders has swelled into a cultural crisis as the pandemic has killed American Indians and Alaska Natives at nearly twice the rate of white people, deepening what critics call the deadly toll of a tattered health system and generations of harm and broken promises by the U.S. government."

"It’s like we’re having a cultural book-burning," Jason Salsman, a spokesman for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in eastern Oklahoma, told Healy. "We’re losing a historical record, encyclopedias. One day soon, there won’t be anybody to pass this knowledge down."

Tribes across the nation are putting elders and fluent indigenous-language speakers first in line to get coronavirus vaccinations, but there are often obstacles to receiving it. "Elders who live in remote locations often have no means to get to the clinics and hospitals where vaccinations are administered," Healy reports. "And there is deep mistrust of the government in a generation that was subjected without consent to medical testing, shipped off to boarding schools and punished for speaking their own language in a decades-long campaign of forced assimilation."

Activists say there still isn't a reliable death toll of Native elders. "They say their deaths are overlooked or miscounted, especially off reservations and in urban areas, where some 70 percent of Indigenous people live," Healy reports. "Adding to the problem, tribal health officials say their sickest members can essentially vanish once they are transferred out of small reservation health systems to larger hospitals with intensive-care units."

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