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Native Americans in the United States (American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians) have historically been the object of genocide. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, this was accomplished overtly through war, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and the withholding first of the smallpox inoculation (developed in the early 18th century) and then of the modern vaccination (developed at the end of the 18th century). By the end of the 19th century, as a result of this genocide, the American Indian population had been reduced as estimated by the demographer Russell Thornton from 5+ million persons at its zenith to 250,000.

Covid-19 in Native America

In the matter of Covid-19, as in all else, Native nations are not receiving the aid they need to effectively combat the virus.

Today, according to the U.S. census, the population of American Indians and Alaska Natives is 5.6 million. But Natives are the poorest part of the population; and Congress, which has "plenary power" in Indian affairs, seems committed to keeping the status quo by the meager funds appropriated for Native matters in health, education, and welfare. Hence in the matter of Covid-19, as in all else, Native nations are not receiving the aid they need to effectively combat the virus so that their infection and death rate is disproportionately higher than that of the general population. As reported by the Center for World Indigenous Studies:

Data documenting pre-infection, asymptomatic, and symptomatic COVID infections in Indian Country have been seriously hampered by the failure of the US government and State governments to disaggregate data for American Indian, Alaskan Native and Hawaiian Native Populations and to provide comprehensive testing and support the complicated task of contact tracing.

At best, any data concerning COVID-19 is an approximation in the absence of testing and tracing, and in the United States native populations are generally not included in efforts to maximize testing and tracing.

We find as a result of this lack of resources due in part to the relative bureaucratic invisibility of a distinctly Native demographic that, as reported in the NY Times of May 1, 2020, a group of American Indian tribes are suing the Treasury Department for allocating Covid funds to Alaska village corporations with the argument that because of their corporate, or for-profit, structure “they do not meet the definition of tribal governments”

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Unlike the tribes in the lower forty-eight, the Alaska village corporations hold their land in freehold, whereas most of the land of American Indian tribes is held in "trust" by the federal government, which removes this land from the market economy. But this difference in the status of Native land and thus of Native governance has not made a difference in the economic situation of both Native peoples. In 2012, as reported by the Pew foundation, the combined poverty rate of both groups was 29.1%. This is one of the ways that colonialism works: pitting the colonized against each other.

While the U.S. is built on stolen Native land gained through genocide, the U.S. government has cultivated a selective memory in this formative part of its history so that the real origin of the U.S. has been largely erased in its major institutions: government, education, and media. Contributing to this erasure are two recent instances, not on the Right, where one might expect them, but on the Left. On Monday morning, May 11, 2020, on Democracy Now, which, rightly, bills itself as a progressive news organization and does important reporting from the Left, its host Amy Goodman informed its audience that Covid -19 was disproportionately affecting the African American and Latinx communities without mentioning the disproportionate number of infections and deaths in Native America, which remains a virtually invisible demographic across the political spectrum from Right to Left. Because Democracy Now has focused on Native issues, this no doubt inadvertent omission can tell us something about the habit of memory in the United States. In the same vein, Jesse Jackson published a piece on the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Counterpunch online, May 15, 2020, that makes the following claim: “To this day, African Americans are last hired and first fired. We suffer the worst poverty, the highest unemployment, the highest childhood hunger and malnutrition, the most inadequate health care.” While there is no denying the historic immiseration of the African American community, in fact those rates are highest in the Native American Community. So Jackson, who certainly has a consummate degree of consciousness about racial inequity in the U.S., literally does not count Native Americans in his statistics.

As my examples suggest whereas the African American and Latinx communities come reflexively to mind when discussing the political injustices facing the Nation, Native American communities do not, when in fact the first and ongoing injustice inflicted on Native nations is the very injustice that forms the U.S. This injustice goes under the name of "settler colonialism," which as defined by Patrick Wolfe, has as its object "the elimination of the Native." Withholding adequate health care from the Native community, particularly during a pandemic, is one form of elimination, a kind of biological warfare, comparable to the withholding of the smallpox inoculation and vaccine in the past.

This is not history repeating itself. It is the continuation of a history of genocide. Until the U.S. acknowledges this foundational history, it will not be able to rebuild itself on a foundation of social justice.

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Eric Cheyfitz

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