• A sign posted at the entrance of Monument Valley in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, on the Navajo reservation. (AP)Source: AP
First Nations tribal leaders in the US are pushing back against the urgency to reopen the country's economy, saying they are concerned about the impact it could have on communities already devastated by the coronavirus.
Keira Jenkins

The Point
12 May 2020 - 3:32 PM  UPDATED 12 May 2020 - 3:32 PM

More than 80,000 people have died with Coronavirus in the United States and more than one million people have contracted the disease. 

The country has been devastated by COVID-19, but First Nations communities have been hit arguably the hardest by the cornavirus.

In the Navajo Nation, in the south-west states of the US, local media reports at least 100 people have died from the virus, while more than 3,000 have tested positive to COVID-19.

Native Rights advocate, journalist and Tsq'escen and Lil'Wat man Julian Noisecat told NITV News that this is partially due to lack of resources for Indigenous communities.

“We have seen that First Nation communities have been disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus,” he said.

“For example, the Navajo Nation, which is the second largest tribe by population and largest by landmass, located in the southwest in the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, last week surpassed 2,700 positives for coronavirus. 

“Remarkably this community that has a population density basically the same as Siberia has as many coronavirus cases as Wuhan China, where the pandemic began.

“This is an illustration I think of the way that Indigenous communities have been really burdened with this pandemic and this disease.

“Of course that feeds into the histories of colonisation and poverty and there’s a lot less access to healthcare in these communities.”

But in some places across the US, 'stay at home' orders are being relaxed.

This has sparked concern across the country that lifting restrictions too soon could see coronavirus cases surge.

Mr Noisecat said First Nations people are worried about their communities’ safety as some states push to re-open.

“In places like South Dakota where you have tribal leaders who are still enforcing stay at home orders and checkpoints on the borders of their reservations and at the same time Governors who want to re-open the economy, there are definitely tensions there,” he said.

“The underlying concern of Native leaders is that re-opening the economy will disproportionately impact the Native community with disease.

“I think it’s a real concern. In many instances like in the Navajo Nation and elsewhere we have seen tribes and First Nations being more heavily impacted by this pandemic than other communities for a number of reasons.

“I think that it’s reasonable for tribal leaders to be concerned that this disparity could continue and potentially grow if we re-open the economy.”

Mr Noisecat said, similarly to Indigenous communities in Australia, social distancing can be difficult for First Nations due to overcrowding in housing.

“Many of the same problems exist here as they do for First Nations in Australia,” Mr Noisecat said.

“So in the Navajo Nation for example, one estimate says they are short 50,000 houses for a population of around 175,000.

“Effectively you have large families crowded into small and sometimes inadequate housing and about a third of homes on that reservation in particular lack running water.

“The full picture here is that you have families crowded into homes where they can’t do something as simple and essential as wash their hands in this pandemic.”

But it’s not all so bleak. Mr Noisecat said this pandemic, while painful for so many First Nations across the country, has highlighted the resilience, strength and leadership of Indigenous communities.

“A lot of tribal leaders have shown a lot of leadership in the face of this crisis, initiating stay at home measures and also organising their own mutual aid efforts,” he said.

Families have turned to popular fundraising websites for broader community support to enable them to obtain essential items and food, and also returning to traditional cultural practices, said Mr Noisecat. 

“So in the Navajo Nation a number of people that I’ve talked to have been going out to collect herbs like sage and spruce and pine to make teas to help strengthen their immune system and turning to those kinds of practices to get through this. 

“I think that is the story of the resilience of our Native communities in the face of a pandemic as troubling as this," he said.

“Like First Nations in Australia our people are survivors, in some ways post-apocalyptic people and we all have our own stories of getting through moments like this and I think that has prepared us in some ways to weather this really horrible storm.”


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