During the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous communities are coming together virtually in the spirit of wellness and many Indigenous Peoples are connecting over social media to showcase culture through song and dance.
Indigenous presence on what we refer to as Turtle Island is rooted in a history of violence, including biological warfare. In 1763, British army officer Jeffery Amherst encouraged the intentional spread of disease to Indigenous communities through smallpox blankets. Smallpox was one of the diseases that ravaged Indigenous communities, along with influenza and measles.
Fast forward to the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic when Indigenous communities were sent body bags rather than health-care resources. These health disparities should have been a wake-up call in 2009 when northern Indigenous communities were hit the hardest during the H1N1 outbreak. The structural barriers and health-care inequities facing Indigenous communities are clear.
As a result, Indigenous spiritual traditions and community connections remain integral to our survival.
Survival and resistance
Survivance, according to Indigenous literary scholar Gerald Vizenor, is about more than survival: It encompasses an active sense of presence merging both survival and resistance.
In examining solidarity movements like Idle No More, Cree scholar Karyn Recollet writes that new geographies of resistance bring Indigenous peoples together through a process of “making visible an active Indigenous presence and futurity in otherwise contested Indigenous territories.”
Cultural traditions like the jingle dress dance show how Indigenous people come together to survive and resist. As historian Brenda Child uncovered, this medicinal and healing dance is connected to the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic.
One of the origin stories of the jingle dress dance explains that it was first danced by Maggie White of Whitefish Bay First Nation after it came to Maggie’s father in a vision when Maggie was ill as a child. Known for its beautiful sound and intricate footwork, the dance has since become a popular main category in traditional and competitions powwow; jingle dress dancers are often called upon to perform healing ceremonies.
This virtual connection is a powerful expression of our cultural strength — the very parts that hold us up, transcending borders, time and space.
For some, the pandemic means indefinite separation from community, friends and family. For example, the community of Six Nations of the Grand River Territory recently put up barricades to prevent access to visitors as a way to protect the reserve from the spread of COVID-19. Similar blockades are now preventing non-residents from entering Indigenous communities across the country.
Within the boundaries of Six Nations, support for community safety is visibly unwavering. Community member Rhonda Martin has been busy in her kitchen preparing healthy meals for the community members posted to the barricades. Chef Tawnya Brant has been showcasing videos featuring traditional foods on YouTube. The owners of jewellery company Sapling & Flint restructured their gallery to make face mask filters for frontline workers; many of these have been sent to the Navajo Nation that has recorded the largest per-capita infection rate in the United States. As of May 23, the Navajo Nation has 4,434 positive COVID-19 cases and 147 deaths. The disproportionate rates of infection within Indigenous communities demands immediate action.
Coming together as a virtual community
Similar acts of support and decolonial love are happening across Turtle Island. Writer Adrienne Keene set up Indigenous Stories of Uncertain Times, where contributors can request donations be sent to an Indigenous COVID relief fund. Indigenous youth are building and inspiring community through the TikTok-based #PassTheBrush challenge. Traditional cooking has been inspired by Yazzie the Chef’s #PassTheChefKnife video featuring Indigenous chefs cooking from home in their own territories:
Indigenous authors and podcasters are bringing people together through dialogue. The survivance and the solidarity of Indigenous peoples hold us up and keep us well.
On May 21, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a relief fund for Indigenous people living off-reserve and in urban centres. The money, expected to take several weeks to roll out, is intended to support community-based projects including access to food and mental health services, but it fails to address the structural barriers and health disparities facing Indigenous communities.
Canada has failed to end the ongoing boil water advisories across First Nations communities. Communities with “do not consume advisories” can only wash their hands with bottled water and hand soap — commodities that are suddenly hard to find for many Canadians.
The community members of Neskantaga in Ontario, for example, can spend over $7 for a 3.7-litre jug of water. Along with the outrageous food prices in some of our remote communities, residents face poor infrastructure, food insecurity and limited health-care resources. The inequities are evident.
Now, more than ever, the government of Canada needs to roll out an immediate and effective plan to ensure the safety and well-being of Indigenous communities. Until then, Indigenous communities will continue to do all possible to ensure their own protection and well-being; this is nothing new.
I remain fearful for the most vulnerable communities of this land. Our virtual Indigenous community, however, is stronger than ever as evidenced with each YouTube, TikTok video and virtual jingle dress dance.
I am not sure what normalcy will look and feel like, but the Indigenous survivance that has strengthened us during this pandemic will have forever changed us.
From the structural barriers that have produced disproportionate rates of infection to the inadequate health-care responses, the present state remains grossly unfair to Indigenous peoples. As we take it upon ourselves to construct a safer, healthier and more equitable reality after COVID-19, I hope more non-Indigenous people consider these disparities as a call for collective action on our now shared territories.