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Native Americans and Pandemics – A Way of Life

Welcome, friends. You are about to read a guest post from Jennifer Patten, a good friend and co-author of "Journey with the Wheel." I hope you will take her words to heart, and listen with an open mind and spirit.

Native American populations have been impacted by pandemics throughout history. European immigrants introduced an onslaught of diseases including smallpox, measles, and influenza. These diseases, all novel to a pristine isolated population, have decimated tribal people and destroyed indigenous cultures over time.

For over 500 years change has been imposed on Native people by outside forces and circumstances. Broken treaties with the US Government in an attempt to acculturate Native Peoples led to tribes being forced onto reservations of land that white settlers deemed uninhabitable. The forced removal from their original home sites and way of life had devastating effects on their health. Now, the widespread hazardous contamination of their land and water due to the legacy of mining practices, oil spills, and chemical runoffs, has led to significant health issues today.

Currently, on the Navajo reservation there are hundreds of confirmed cases of COVID-19 compounding the daily hardship of life. In certain areas, efforts to mitigate transmission have been thwarted by lack of basic human needs. In some areas on the Navajo reservation, there is no running water due to mining practices, which has drained the tribe’s aquifer. Many Navajo do not have access to electricity. They cannot refrigerate and store food nor could they run needed ventilators. The lack of the most basic resources exacerbates vulnerability for Native peoples. The decimation of Native communities from this pandemic will be intensified by the remote geographic location and no access to healthcare. With the massive thrust of resources and media attention being aimed at the rest of the nation, I am reminded that our Native Peoples are once again the ‘Forgotten Ones’.

The centuries of loss, oppression and annihilation of Indian people have robbed them of a quality of life that others take for granted. The loss of life, the desperate need of food, water, and sustaining resources is standard for Native people. The lack of control and uncertainty now being experienced in the United States is something Native people have felt for generations.

Much has been written about the “new normal” but what will the “new normal” look like for Native Americans? This will not change their way of living dramatically like it has the rest of the country. Their lives have been molded by pandemics and shortages. Its imprint throughout history has left scars upon the Indian nation’s psyche. Their lives were disrupted on a scale we now see reflected nationwide.

It’s time we put this in perspective. Most people’s lives will return to a semblance of normality, but little will change for Indian people. Will the US government once again continue to ignore the indigenous people and dishonor their sacred trusts?

American Indian people are aware of how their health, education, culture, and language are all naturally related. They have a strong determination to survive regardless of centuries of oppression. Their strength and power is derived from the spirituality that lives on in their cultures and will continue to do so despite the lack of support.

When we are on the other side of this massive challenge and social distancing has been lifted, will the lessons we learn enlighten our values and worldview? A positive change and a rebirth of the communal spirit is desperately needed.

The future of our lives is dependent on a unified worldview - one where we understand that we are all connected. People, communities, and all living things are interrelated. The more we can learn from Native philosophy of living in accordance with the natural laws of nature and of helping one another, the sooner we will realize a future that respects and protects all people.

Let’s envisage a future in which global partnerships focus on solving the environmental and climatic challenges that affect all our health and well-being. Let us honor the lives lost in this pandemic by co-creating a future that embodies unity as the “new norm” for our world … so that no lives are lost in vain.

The remedy to illness lies in the correction of our thoughts. Let this experience strengthen our connections. Let’s reaffirm our relationship to one another and cultivate a greater appreciation for the habits of stewardship to the land. Only then will we have a chance to heal and transform illness and infection to wholeness and perfection. The good of all hinges on the innovative and constructive efforts of many. Pandemic pathways can lead to portal openings that realign and redefine ourselves as a global circle of life. What will your contribution be?


Jennifer Patten, an enrolled member of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, founded the Tennessee Indian Education Association and hosted the National Indian Education Association in Nashville in 1998. She is a professional life coach, a former teacher, reading and learning specialist. Follow her at:

Instagram: @jenpatten3

Twitter: @jenpatten and @Bigmedicineteachings

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