by Elisabeth M. Eittreim, author of Teaching Empire: Native Americans, Filipinos, and US Imperial Education, 1879–1918
CNN ran a devastating though not surprising headline on Monday, May 18, 2020: “Navajo Nation surpasses New York state for the highest Covid-19 infection rate in the US.” Two months earlier, the New York City region had shut down, including life in the small suburban town where I live. Schools, businesses, and life in general was (and continues to be) quarantined, and daily news briefings counted the highest number of lives lost and rates of community transmission in the country. Only recently have analyses of nationwide statistics regarding the virus revealed the known but often ignored inequities that plague our nation, as higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death are found among African American, Latino, and other minority communities, disproportionately burdening the most oppressed in the land of the free. Perhaps some of the most ignored and neglected among us are the more than 6 million indigenous peoples living in the United States today.
Despite high rates of compliance to some of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the country, CNN reports multiple risk factors that the Navajo nation faces with the advent of COVID-19: 30-40% of households without running water, multi-generational family units, and limited numbers of grocery stores. Disproportionately high rates of disease and poverty also plague the Navajo and other Native American peoples, increasing susceptibility to the virus.
The Navajo nation’s vulnerabilities today are not indicative of history repeating itself. Today’s vulnerabilities—and those of other minority communities—are historical inequities compounded. Moments of crisis, like this 2020 pandemic, exponentially exacerbate existing inequities: inadequate access to food, health care, medicine, living wages, and safety. Many Americans like to tell themselves that they have worked hard and have thus earned their salaries, their homes, and their lifestyles. And yes, many have worked hard, although most have not been burdened by centuries of generational poverty.
Historically, disease and European then American greed—conquest, warfare, forced removal, and enforced reservation life—decimated the indigenous population of North America. Between 1492 and 1900, more than 85 percent of the population was lost. Assaults on native lives, livelihoods, and culture continued into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including through institutions that many Americans considered the great equalizer: school.
While missionaries had sought to reeducate American Indians since early contact, by the late 1800s the US government increasingly invested in schooling to resolve the so-called “Indian problem”—that posed by Native Americans who continued to insist on their autonomy despite US expansion. In 1879, the US government opened the first off-reservation Indian boarding school: the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Established in the east, far from most Native American communities, Carlisle and other schools for Indian education sought to “save the Indian” both from their presumed “backwardness” and from extinction itself. Indigenous families were largely coerced into sending their children to such schools, and too many families would never see their children alive again.
From the Carlisle Indian School’s earliest days, disease stole the lives of native children. A Cheyenne child was the first to die in January 1880. Weeks later, an Iowan child died after only three weeks at the school. Diseases like consumption, measles, tuberculosis, and trachoma plagued all Indian schools. Children died of pneumonia, meningitis, and influenza. In the almost forty years that Carlisle was open, more than two hundred student deaths were officially reported, most from disease, though the actual number is much higher, as sick children were often sent home and not counted.
Government-sponsored Indian schools continue to exist today, though their missions now celebrate indigenous heritage and diversity rather than try to squelch it. Still, education alone cannot remedy the poverty plaguing the Navajo nation and other indigenous communities. Education, however well-intended, does not guarantee that households have running water; such children and their families are acutely vulnerable to COVID-19 as they literally cannot wash away the virus.
Most Americans prefer to celebrate the promise of American democracy rather than admit its flaws. We revel in historic victories but minimize the atrocities. We elevate the stories and events of the past that show our best side but ignore those that expose our worst. Such selective storytelling about who we are impacts the policies and perspectives that we hold today. The Navajo nation’s access to running water today may seem disconnected from historic wrongs, but it is the cumulative result of centuries of disease, displacement, deceit, and denial. In fact, most non-native Americans ignore the existence of modern-day indigenous peoples. We confine native peoples to the past, dress up as pilgrims and Indians in kindergarten classroom Thanksgiving celebrations or cheer on a team mascot embodying the bravery and strength of an Indian warrior, but we do not see the plight or resolve of Native Americans today. We do not burden ourselves with the fact that almost half of Navajo households lack running water.
It is now, in times of crisis, that drastic inequities are revealed and worsened. Let us make it a time where we begin to acknowledge our sins of the past and present, where we strive toward understanding, and where we listen. It is not our job to assume that we have all of the answers, but it is our responsibility to respect and hear native voices.
Elisabeth Eittreim is a lecturer in the History Department at Rutgers University and an adjunct in the Women’s Studies Department at Georgian Court University.