On Friday, the preferred president of assholes everywhere issued a shitty proclamation declaring that today’s federal holiday is exclusively a celebration of Italian-American contributions to our nation and the exploits of a particular 15th century Italian explorer, said exploits necessarily encompassing the ensuing brutal colonization and genocide of Indigenous people in the Americas. This proclamation is much, much worse than I even imagined. (And I write this as a person with significant Italian-American heritage.) If you choose to read on, you will first want to ensure that your irony meter is in excellent working order and – this is the important part – still under warranty.
For one thing, consider what Pres. Alpha Asshole and his Merry Minions of Masklessness would be saying and doing about Italian immigration a hundred years ago. You know: before Italians suddenly and miraculously became white. I’m pretty sure my grandmother, who happened to be exceptionally dark-skinned even for southern Italy, would have been locked up in a cage along with her sister and all the other Italian immigrant children.
Of course those among us who think we should instead recognize and reckon with the truth of our nation’s history are deemed “radical activists” and “extremists” who “seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy” and instead promote a “radical ideology” and “revisionist history” just to “spread hate and division.”
Let us pause for a moment here so that you can recalibrate your irony meter and/or attempt to extinguish the flames emanating therefrom.
Okay now? Good. The preceding was merely setting the stage for what I really want to talk about on this Indigenous Peoples Day. If you guessed that is “Indigenous people,” you win all the internetz! 🏆⭐️🏅
News that the COVID monster is disproportionately impacting BIPOC communities is fairly ubiquitous, at least here in New York. However, I am not certain whether that ubiquity exists because we were hit earlier and harder than other regions of the country and our state government has done an outstanding job of gathering and publicly reporting COVID testing statistics. If this is not the case elsewhere, it is likely because other regions have not been hit as hard by the virus (yet), compounded by testing and reporting policies inadequacies that prevent drawing any such conclusions.
Nevertheless, for this post I went looking for recent data on COVID in Indigenous communities. And I was heartbroken (though hardly surprised) to learn that the situation is far worse than I thought: nobody knows.
Abigail Echo-Hawk, a scientist, activist and citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, has been fighting public health battles on behalf of Indigenous communities for many years. As director of the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), chief research officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board and co-author of a recent paper published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, she can tell you that her study found American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) were 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than non-Hispanic whites. She can also tell you that statistic is bullshit, because 27 states do not accurately report patients’ race and ethnicity. “That is a gross underreporting,” Echo-Hawk told Science. “The data is a national disgrace.”
Echo-Hawk dedicated herself to addressing this lack of Indigenous-specific health data on multiple fronts, long before COVID.
Speaking of national disgraces, consider maternal mortality. The CDC breaks down US maternal mortality reports by three classifications: white, Black, and Hispanic, while all other races are combined into “other.” Ditto for many hospital intake forms and other documents routinely required to access health care. A more obvious institutional practice of erasure is difficult to conceive.
Echo-Hawk’s UIHI analyzed maternal mortality among urban American Indian mothers, finding a maternal mortality rate 4.2 higher than non-Hispanic whites. As alarming as that number is, it too is almost certainly an undercount due to scant and incomplete data. We have enough data to say, for example, that AI/AN communities suffer from higher rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma, heart disease and suicide than whites, but not enough data to quantify with any certainty how much higher.
Of course, the dearth of health data is just one slice of one aspect of the myriad injustices faced by Indigenous people. And no one, not even the incredibly formidable Abigail Echo-Hawk, can effectively fight all of them. But everyone can help. Here are some suggestions:
- Stay informed about issues impacting Indigenous communities. I follow High Country News (a.k.a. Indian Country News Network) but there are many others. Google them, peruse a few, check out their social media feeds (if that’s your thing) and pick one or more that resonate with you. The voices of Indigenous people have been silenced since 1492. We have internet access; the least we can do is listen to them.
- Share what you learn in your own communities. Beautiful art, fascinating history, human interest stories, archeological discoveries – in a sense it doesn’t really matter what you share. I have no proof of this, but I strongly suspect it is much more difficult to erase entire populations who are regularly producing a wide and diverse spectrum of news stories and social media content.
- Seek ways to support Indigenous activism. Indigenous people are on the front lines fighting against powerful and relentless forces, and this is particularly true with regard to energy policy and environmental law (e.g. tar sands pipeline projects and deforestation). It is not an exaggeration to say that the outcomes of these battles will profoundly affect every single species living on the planet today as well as every single future generation to come.
- Look into local Indigenous issues where you are. Here’s a nifty interactive world map illustrating historical boundaries of Indigenous tribal lands: type in your address and discover whose stolen land you’re presently occupying. Sometimes all it takes is a few more privileged people (or just one!) speaking up at a town zoning meeting to prevent further harm to local Indigenous people.
- Start today. Here is a timely change.org petition I came across in my inbox this morning. In a nutshell:
Squaw Valley is a ski resort on land stolen from the Washoe tribe near Lake Tahoe. Because “squaw” is a derogatory term towards Indigenous women, many Washoe women are avoiding their own sacred land out of fear. The ski resort says it will announce a new name in 2021. [The petition organizer] thinks they should let the Washoe tribe rename their own land. Add your name to help amplify Washoe women’s voices and give them the respect they deserve.
(photo: www.ryansalmphotography.com via Change.org)
There is more information at the petition link. Please sign and share it if you are willing, able and can safely do so. Thank you.