Photo Joye Braun by Karen Savage
The age of smallpox blankets was not that long ago
By Joye Braun
Cheyenne River Lakota
An international pandemic is upon us. We hear about it daily, sometimes hourly as we turn on our social media accounts, the television or the radio. Some of our nations, like the Navajo Nation in the southwest are experiencing growing cases while other tribal nations have so far stemmed the tide of this latest threat to our people.
It is time for caution. It is time to be proactive and take individual and collective responsibility for our people.
What that looks like is evolving. Some tribal nations are putting up signs warning residents and travelers through their territories that there are COVID -19 cases in the area. Some are putting in place curfews to stem people from roaming and others are considering border checkpoints onto their lands.
However. as a resident of one of a reservation that as of today has no known cases, I still see people not practicing social distancing. That new term that has come to mean staying 6 feet away from other people. To be cognizant of the interactions we have with other people and to not invite people over to your house for social gatherings, to limit interactions in social situations and to not shake hands as a form of greeting. All of things are hard on us as Indigenous people because we teach our children from an early age to shake elders hands out of respect, to go out of our way to look out for one another, and to check on one another during natural disasters like blizzards.
The Centers for Disease Control tells us the best way to not get sick is by avoiding being exposed to the disease. That’s why most tribal nations have implemented the essential and non-essential employee determination. If you are not essential, like here on Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation the employee is supposed to be home sheltering in place. If they are caught traveling off-reservation for non-medical or non-essential work, they won’t get paid leave. Some private businesses have shut down in-store purchases and are providing curbside or delivery services. Tribal businesses are trying to follow CDC guidelines but that can be hard when the general public refuses to comply.
Why do we need to do these things? A person can be a carrier for the disease and not know it. They may not have serious symptoms and not get tested and so they won’t know if they are a carrier. This one person goes to work, and has interactions there, goes home and is near their children, goes and visits grandma or grandpa, sees their cousin at the post office who has diabetes, all these people would then potentially be exposed. Their children run outside and go play with their neighbors then those children go home, more people are then exposed.
As Indigenous people, we have DNA memory and realistically that memory is not that long ago of smallpox blankets or other pandemics that spread in our communities. Diseases like the Spanish flu or Tuberculous are not that long ago. We have relatives in our family trees that are simply not there anymore because they passed on during these epidemics. This new disease is not an epidemic. It is a pandemic. We need to be good relatives.
We need to think what it means to be a good relative. As a relative, I want to protect the ones that I love. I want my elders to be able to pass on their knowledge and stories. I want our children to grow up and go to school and become scientists, teachers, lawyers, doctors themselves. I want to live to enjoy watching my grandchildren grow up and discover their passions and see them pick up the fight to survive and thrive as Indigenous communities.
The CDC has guidelines and lots of information on their webpage cdc.gov. Stay home, practice social distancing, cover your cough, wash your hands with soapy water for at least 20 seconds and do this often. If you are sick wear a mask. Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects like door handles, fridge doors, light switches, countertops, keyboards, etc.
Practicing caution while we face off with this threat to our people is our best defense to prevent a horrible scary outcome. I do think we haven’t seen the worst yet. I hope we don’t.