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Indigeneity in the Time of Covid-19

Among the Indigenous communities in Minnesota that I have been a part of for the last decade or so, I seem to have an unpopular opinion regarding gatherings during a pandemic. The reality is, I frankly don’t care if it’s unpopular, it’s based in logic and reasoning. Here goes: there is absolutely NO REASON that we should be gathering in groups outside of our immediate families until the pandemic is either under control or we have measures in place like a vaccine.

Think About It…

Since March, many of our elders have been sheltering-in-place, isolating, it doesn’t matter what you call it: they’ve been holed up in their homes watching Netflix, getting their groceries and medications delivered, and hoping their health doesn’t force them to leave the house and visit a clinic or hospital. For months, they haven’t been able to play Bingo. They haven’t been able to hug and kiss their grandbabies. They haven’t eaten at a casino buffet.

And what does a gathering right now, when schools are back in-session, cases are on the rise, and no vaccine is in sight, say to these elders? It says a big ‘ol F You. It says that they sacrificed all of these things for nothing, because as soon as we start holding these gatherings and creating new ways for community transmission, we are undoing all of their hard work.

Rona Roundies, Covid-49s, and SARS COV-2Step

Powwows right now, are you kidding me?!

I get it. We haven’t put on our regalia and try to snag since LAST summer. If we have, it’s been either to dance in a gymnasium somewhere or for a SDP (social distance powwow) video; it’s just not the same! We miss the sound of drums and jingles, the smell of fry bread and campfires, and the sound of the MC calling out parents letting their kids run around and hitting on aunties.

But last I checked, we can’t dance if we’re dead.

And that’s really the part of this that I struggle to understand. How many of our ancestors died when colonization started, because of widespread pandemics? Once they started to understand where these illnesses came from, they began to avoid the methods of transmission (there’s a reason we have a collective distrust of someone offering us a blanket…), doing everything they could to stay alive. They did that for us, their descendants, whom they didn’t know would exist but gosh darn it if they weren’t hopeful that despite all the crazy shit that was happening to them, we would survive and be born and carry on our traditions and languages. And I am here to tell you, dead people do not carry on traditions and languages.

So you’ve really got to be asking yourself: is it worth it? Is this what my ancestors would have done, or wanted? Because when I look at the long-term effects of what Covid has done, is doing, and could continue to do to our communities, I say No. Going to a powwow this summer is stupid. It doesn’t continue our traditions, it threatens them. Oh sure, tell me that you can social distance at a powwow and I’m going to find every single video of a drum group from the last 2 powwows I saw videos from in MN to prove you wrong. And no one was wearing a mask either. If you think that over 500 years of cultural resilience in the face of colonization can be undone in a single summer of not being able to go to powwows, there’s a bigger discussion to be had.

My ancestors did not survive smallpox for this.

My ancestors did not survive boarding schools for this.

My ancestors did not survive a government-supported genocide program for this.

My ancestors did not survive vicious cycles of alcoholism, abuse, dispossession, and assimilation for this.

I am the vision of resilience my ancestor’s dreamed of in 1492 when the first wave of colonization hit Turtle Island, and I choose to honor that vision by staying home when possible, wearing masks when I have to go out, not gathering with people outside of my household, and waiting to participate in cultural events in person until there is a vaccine. It’s not a popular opinion. But I simply cannot imagine a world in which a decision I make directly threatens an elder in my community, resulting in the irreconcilable loss of knowledge that elder embodies.


Published by Larissa Harris

I am a PhD student at Michigan Technological University in the Industrial Heritage and Archaeology program (social sciences department). I have a background in anthropology with an archaeology emphasis (BA, Minnesota State University Moorhead, MA, University of Manitoba). I have been working as an interpreter in industrial heritage for 4 years, and more broad naturalist interpretation for 4 years prior to that. I also have experience working in formal and informal education in Minnesota, primarily working with Indigenous communities.

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