Faculty Discuss COVID-19’s Impact on Native Peoples as Part of Native American Heritage Month

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As part of its Native American Heritage Month celebrations, Colgate University’s ALANA Cultural Center hosted a virtual panel on “Experiences of the Pandemic in the Native Americas” on Nov. 2. Panelists included Associate Professor of History and Director of the Native American Studies Program Heather Roller and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Santiago Juarez.

Brazil has the second deadliest outbreak of COVID-19, and the virus has proved three times more fatal to indigenous groups in Brazil when compared to the rest of the population.

“What makes indigenous groups so vulnerable to this virus is not the same as what made them vulnerable in the past — that moment of first contact, historically speaking, when they were immunologically unprepared for the flu or measles or even the common cold,” Roller said. “COVID is new to the entire world, and we’re all immunologically unprepared for it. What makes indigenous groups vulnerable to it is a whole range of other social, economic, and environmental factors.”

River systems connect Brazil’s indigenous communities and allow for the virus to spread even in remote locations. Roller also cited poor access to healthcare; under-resourced hospitals that can be hundreds of miles away from some indigenous communities; a lack of access to hygiene products; mortality risks from rising rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity; longstanding problems with unsafe drinking water and malnutrition; and communal living conditions.

Furthermore, Roller noted, Brazil’s traditional, multigenerational households make quarantine a challenge.

Yet, Roller acknowledged, “Indigenous groups have understood the nature of this threat more quickly than a lot of outside groups because they have deep historical memories that have to do with past epidemics.”

Many indigenous communities have blocked their villages from outsiders, provisioned their supplies so as to avoid interacting with neighboring villages, and utilized social media campaigns and internet initiatives to ensure that they maintain access to updated information and coordinate the safe deliveries of supplies.

Juarez echoed Roller’s sentiments in his discussion of Mexico’s Lacandon population, which also suffers from a lack of basic medicine and overwhelmed hospitals while responding to the virus from a position of historical experience. Communities used to build their houses kilometers apart from one another as a defense against the spread of disease and live in structures that could easily be abandoned until rainforest destruction forced them into compact villages. 

“We see a set history of a long experience with pandemic diseases ever since the Lacondon were first discussed in the 1700s,” Juarez said. 

The Lacandon mainly rely on the tourism industry and are finding the lack of tourists extremely difficult as their local agricultural practices are not fully sustainable due to a lack of available land. On the national level, the Mexican government has used the crisis to advance its efforts to disenfranchise this already vulnerable population, according to Juarez. While Mexico is fourth in the world in terms of infections and deaths, the president is encouraging a movement not to report those numbers and instead focus on reopening the economy.

“People are worried about the pandemic disease. They are worried about falling ill, but they also talk about being hungry,” he said.

Roller and Juarez agreed that attendees should financially support NGOs working towards delivering food and PPE to indigenous communities in order to combat the dire shortage of resources on the ground.

“[Indigenous peoples] reject the idea that they are doomed to disappear in the pandemic,” Roller said.

This event was made possible through the collaboration of the Native American Studies Program and ALANA. Other events throughout November included the virtual talk “Exploration of the lived experiences of the Native American population during the COVID-19 pandemic” on Nov. 10, featuring guest speaker Dr. Sophina Calderon, a member of the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The month’s celebrations will close out with a knitting event on Nov. 17.