Coronavirus in Native American Communities: The Charade of “Thanksgiving”

General Jeffrey Amherst’s letter of 16 July 1763 advocating for the use of every method, including the “gift” of smallpox-infected blankets to American Indians, that might aid in extirpating “this execrable Race”.

Every nation has its, to use the word commonly invoked for such purposes, “myths”.  Just how myths, lies, and fictions differ from each other is an interesting question in itself, but in his classic essay of the late 19th century, “What is a Nation?”, Ernest Renan put forward the arresting idea that a nation cannot be forged without some shared notion of “forgetfulness”.  Americans, especially white Americans, have for generations been brought up on the idea that the annual celebration known as Thanksgiving, held on the fourth Thursday of November for many decades, marks the occasion when the Pilgrims first sat together with Native Americans and they broke bread together in celebration of the first successful harvest.  This recounting of that idyllic past disguises the forgetfulness which would become critical to the making of America.  The other name for that forgetfulness is “genocide”.  It is for this reason that, in common with many other Native Americans, the United American Indians of New England mark Thanksgiving Day as the “National Day of Mourning”.  As this collective of Native American organizations states, “Since 1970, Native Americans and our supporters have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”

Though the onslaught on Native Americans was carried out over generations, this year, as the coronavirus continues its rampage through the US, has been especially brutal for them.  There has been considerable discussion in the American and international press, as indeed there should be, on how the pandemic has disproportionately affected certain constituencies, among them the elderly, those with certain underlying conditions, and certain racial minorities.  In my recently published book, The Fury of Covid-19:  The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus (Pan Macmillan India 2020), from where what follows has been excerpted with some revisions, I discuss how racial minorities and the poor have been impacted in countries such as the US, UK, Brazil, and India.  In the US, most of such discussion has been around Blacks and Latinx communities, but American Indians (and Alaskan Native People) are also, as an increasing number of studies have indubitably established by now, disproportionately vulnerable to the coronavirus; indeed, among those who are infected, American Indians are far more likely to suffer from a serious illness.

Source (14 May 2020): https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/covid-19-presents-significant-risks-for-american-indian-and-alaska-native-people/

Among those who must contend with the vice and virus of discrimination, some are further burdened by invisibility—none more so than Native Americans.  They experienced slavery and outright extermination even before the first slaves from Africa were brought over to the colonies on the Eastern seaboard in 1619. They know something about epidemic disease; it is part of the psycho-geography of the Native American imaginary. When American Indians were not hunted down, they succumbed in massive numbers to diseases of the Old World brought to the New World by European conquistadors and colonizers.  This is scarcely the place to discuss the shifting contours of the scholarship on catastrophic population loss among native peoples in consequence of the European conquest of the Americas, and how far serfdom, slavery, and outright extermination led to the precipitous decline of the indigenous population, but there can be no doubt that epidemic disease was a major if not the largest contributor to the mortality of native Americans.

Though there is no evidence that Europeans from the outset waged biological warfare in a deliberate effort to reduce the native population, the authors of a 1945 study, the first of its kind, suggests that smallpox effectively did that work.  Smallpox is particularly germane since, wrote E. Wagner Stearn and Allen E. Stearn in The Effect of Smallpox on the Destiny of the Amerindian, it ‘killed more Indians in the early centuries than did any other disease’ (p. 13); moreover, by the 18th century, the deliberate transmission of the disease to Indians, whom the early settlers in Massachusetts had pronounced as being in exceedingly good health and free of fevers, pleurisies, consumption, measles, and the pox, is well-documented. The commander of British forces during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), General Jeffrey Amherst, in an attempt to quell resistance from the Indians, was not beyond using smallpox as a weapon to gain the upper hand.  Some 20-25 years ago Ward Churchill wrote about this and was roundly condemned by many “respectable” academics for his polemical zeal, but Amherst’s most odious missives on this question are all available in his own hand and properly archived.  His long exchange with Colonel Henry Bouquet, who commanded the forces at Fort Pitt, can be summarized in this observation of 16 July 1763:  ‘You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.’ [See also Thomas Kidd, American Colonial HistoryClashing Cultures and Faiths (New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 2016), epub ed., 409. For a comparable account, though slightly differing in some details, see Richard Wright, Stolen Continents: The Americas Through Indian Eyes Since 1492 (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992), 136.]

Five hundred years after the first conquests, Native Americans still remain the most vulnerable minority group in the US.  Even when many from the general population were felled by disease, Native Americans bore the brunt of the catastrophe. The environmental and social historian Alfred Crosby, in his book on the 1918 influenza, America’s Forgotten Pandemic, put it starkly: ‘American Indians suffered hideously in the pandemic.’  He states that that the Darwinians among contemporary observers considered their vulnerability to arise from their being a ‘primitive race’, but quite appropriately counters with the argument that ‘Native Americans were members of a group whose society and culture were crumbling, along with their abilities to organize with speed and efficiency to deal with emergencies, under the pressure of the conqueror’s influence.’ It is their colonization, the fact of their being driven into poverty and destitution, that continues to make them especially susceptible to disease.

Shaandiin P. Parrish, Miss Navajo Nation, handing out homemade masks, hand sanitizer and information pamphlets at a checkpoint in Chinle, Arizona. Photo: Sharon Chischilly, The New York Times. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/us/politics/coronavirus-indian-health-service.html

Native Americans have perforce had to take the coronavirus far more seriously than most other Americans:  as Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, a social demographer who is from the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana, explains:  ‘More than any other population in the country, the shared experience of surviving a pandemic is in our blood, it’s not historic, it’s current for American Indians, it’s our reality.’  Just how much it is a “reality” for American Indians is captured by the available data, even as the CDC and state health agencies over the summer ‘turned down tribal epidemiologists’ requests’ for more detailed information.  In New Mexico, Native Americans account for 8.8 percent of the population but nearly 60 percent of all coronavirus deaths; but that the same holds true for other Indian tribes or “nations” as they are known is attested to by one New York Times’ columnist’s comment earlier this summer, inspired by a study undertaken by the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, that ‘if Native American tribes were counted as states, the five most infected states in the country would all be native tribes, with New York dropping to No. 6.’

Signs in Black Rock, Ariz. remind people to wear masks and socially distance. Photo: Nina Mayer Ritchie. Source: https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/navajo-nation-fears-second-covid-19-wave/index.html

The Navajo Nation, which covers portions of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, takes up 71,000 square kilometers and is the largest American Indian reservation in the United States.  Shockingly, and yet perhaps not so, 40 percent of those on the reservation have no access to running water.  In rural India, women—and it is always women—may have to walk for several kilometers to fetch water for drinking, cooking, washing clothes, and for the family’s entire needs; on the American Indian reservations, it is not at all uncommon for people to have to drive many miles to the nearest well to fill containers with water.  Where a semi-affluent American in a city might have bottled water delivered to her home, there is no postal service or package delivery within most reservations; people go and collect their mail from the closest post office. Janene Yazzie, a Navajo community organizer, explained to her interlocutor from the New York Times that rivers run through Navajo lands but the water is diverted to golf courses in Phoenix, “while natives lack legal rights to the water and can’t even get plumbing to wash their hands.”  No wonder that Adam Crepelle, an appellate judge and a university professor of law who belongs to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, in a lengthy review of the vexed question of tribal sovereignty and rights, particularly over the question of water, unhesitatingly stated that Native Americans everywhere in the country face ‘Third World Water Conditions.’

Predictably, though, on reservations as elsewhere the command is the same:  Wash Your Hands Thoroughly for 20 Seconds Throughout the Day.  Much else afflicts American Indians:  unemployment, alcoholism, soaring rates of diabetes, to name just a few.  White American society can begin the task of recompensing American Indians by ending this charade called “Thanksgiving”.

Translated into Spanish by Laura Mancini and available here: http://expereb.com/coronavirus-en-comunidades-nativas-americanas/

5 thoughts on “Coronavirus in Native American Communities: The Charade of “Thanksgiving”

  1. Pingback: Wastewater snow would ruin a mountain considered sacred – Flagstaff (USA) | Tribal Cultural Heritage in India Foundation

  2. I appreciate how this article sheds to light how some minority groups are being ignored during this pandemic especially communities as small as the Native American community compared to the rest. I also understand that the Pacific Islander community is another small community that has been gravely affected during this pandemic as well.

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  3. Though I knew how coronavirus was much more dangerous to African-Americans, Asians, and American Indians, I had no clue that smallpox was purposely given to American-Indians, and that it killed more American Indians than did any other disease. It reminds me of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, where syphilis was administered to African American males, who were not privy to the fact that they were being given this disease and instead thought they were receiving health care. Also, now that the coronavirus has vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, it made me think about why the vaccine is only 89% effective for Asians.

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  4. I find it interesting that when thanksgiving is spoken of I have never heard of it in a negative connotation only as a celebration. I had been taught in school at a young age that the day was a celebration of two different cultures coming together to eat at the same table. Now as I look back at it at a wiser age I come to doubt whether that ever happened. It is obvious that collectively the Native Americans lived a life of genocide and fear all caused by colonizers. This fact only makes their actions worse by the fact that it has become a treasured holiday all around the country except for those who have been affected by it. To them it is an entire day of mourning and remembrance of those who died while to the rest of the country it is a day of celebration.

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  5. I’ve had much to think about the coronavirus pandemic since it began to become a global topic in early 2020, but I’ve never put it into the perspective of Native Americans and how they are in a way re-experiencing the tragedy that fell upon their ancestors when the continent of America was first exposed to Europe and its diseases. As a Korean atheist, I’ve never really celebrated Thanksgiving since the Korean equivalent of it is a religious holiday that thanks god for the year’s harvests rather than a celebration of European pilgrimage to the Americas. Now that I’ve become more aware of the context between these things, I find it absurd that it’s still celebrated in the United States when holidays of similar nature such as Columbus Day have been shunned, since Thanksgiving is essentially a version of Columbus Day that celebrates something even worse.

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