Home Society & Culture How Indigenous Peoples of North America Are Coping with COVID-19

How Indigenous Peoples of North America Are Coping with COVID-19

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‘Our elders are dying,’ says Dr Glenna Khoiye-hayn-ee Stumblingbear-Riddle, a Khoiye tribal member and Licensed Health Service Psychologist. ‘The virus is killing our culture and most definitely affects our mental health.’ 

Indigenous peoples of North America (American Indian, Native American, Alaskan Native, First Nations, and Native Hawaiians; herein referred to generally as Natives) have suffered disproportionate levels of adverse mental health consequences for generations. 

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be hitting people of colour in North America at disproportionate rates and Natives are no exception. In fact, the Native death rate is estimated to be among the highest races (second only to Blacks) with a total of 81.9 per 100,000 people, and even these numbers may be underrepresented

Dr Khoiye-hayn-ee, founder of Resilient Tribal Roots, states: ‘It’s really a disheartening time for many in Indian Country. A friend recently visited the Diné Nation and shared how devastating it was to see row after row of fresh graves.’

Natives’ greater vulnerabilities are likely perpetuated by intergenerational trauma, systemic racism, and continued colonisation. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association acknowledges this adverse relationship: ‘Because of long-standing inequities in our country’s systems and structure, Indigenous People… are at higher risk for physical, mental, and financial problems due to the COVID-19 pandemic.’ 

Mahalia Yakeleya Newmark, who is Shútagot’ıne and Métis and an enrolled member of the Tulı́t’a Dene First Nations, knows how Natives have ‘been profoundly impacted’ by diseases spread by Western colonisation leading to ‘the death and displacement of many of our people.’ She explained that the current pandemic is triggering this historical trauma for many. 

Another huge issue is the lack of resources, particularly when it comes to mental health care. Dr Khoiye-hayn-ee explains how ‘resources were already limited in our communities and this virus has depleted many.’ 

LeRoy (‘Roy’) Athlke’naz’wod Chavez, a Diné tribal member, corroborates this by re-telling the heart-wrenching stories he listens to daily including challenges posed by lack of running water, transportation, electricity, and access to mental health and other resources. 

As a COVID-19 virtual volunteer for the Diné people, a tribe that has been hit extremely hard, Roy Chavez talks to members who are affected by the virus. He lists some of the mental health consequences as ‘loneliness, guilt, fear, denial, anxiety, heartbreak, regret, pain and suffering, and dealing with depression, hopelessness, and despair.’ 

The suggested social distancing is problematic for many Natives who often live in extended family situations and culturally tend to be intensely interconnected. Furthermore, if they are self-isolating due to having contracted the virus, they do not have access to the traditional healing ways that might help them through the illness.

Dr Vicky Lomay, a Diné psychologist interviewed by the American Psychological Association, agrees that not being able to access traditional ceremonies could be impediments to Native healing during this trying time.   

Roy points out that physical touch and presence can be spiritually, physically and psychologically healing for Diné people. He emphasises that mental, physical, and spiritual well-being are interconnected for Natives. 

COVID-19 imposed isolation can cause ‘depression and loss of all hope,’ Roy says. ‘It takes determination and will-power from within to survive.’

Personal experiences 

Dr Khoiye-hayn-ee, Mahalia, and Roy all shared some of the effects of the pandemic on their own mental health. I also found coping during these times more challenging than usual. 

Roy describes the grief, guilt, shock, blame, disbelief, deception, and loss he has been experiencing after losing his best friend, a front-line hospital worker in Reno, to the virus. 

Mahalia jokes that she could write a whole novel about her own experiences and concludes that: ‘This year has been tough!’ 

Dr Khoiye-hayn-ee shares that she has ‘shed many tears over the deaths [of elders] and worry about losing our languages.’

Hope and resiliency 

While in some ways the pandemic is killing cultural practices, hope and resiliency remain steadfast for many Natives. We have always been creative at surviving with limited resources. 

The people interviewed by Indian Country Today mentioned theformal and informal virtual gatherings, phone trees and other socially distanced activities in their communities as a way to survive and remain connected during the pandemic.’ 

Roy’s loss of his best friend inspired him to volunteer for his people, where he is able to both help others cope and simultaneously heal his own grief. 

While Roy’s main role has been to connect callers to ground volunteers to help them get practical needs met such as ‘food, water, and medical and cleaning supplies,’ he quickly realised that many of them needed more than just physical needs met. So he started ‘to take time to listen and offer some peace and compassion,’ oftentimes in their Native language which ‘delighted’ the elders. 

Dr Khoiye-hayn-ee and Mahalia agree that there are some positives. Between the two, they have witnessed such things as Native communities getting stronger, more community harvesting, food and resource sharing, mask making, fundraising, and increased tribal sovereignty. 

Mahalia mentions that ‘many community-driven programmes have emerged to assist families and youth during this time like delivering art kits, sewing kits, food hampers, etc.’ Dr Khoiye-hayn-ee points out the strong Native values of kindness, compassion and generosity that our communities live by even during challenging times.  

The Strong People, Strong Communities Mural Project is an example of hope and resiliency thriving despite the circumstances. The project ‘is being delivered to create beautiful strength-based artwork, to create a beautiful community of artists and youth who will collaborate together, and to give people meaningful work in a time that can feel difficult and uncertain,’ says project co-founder Mahalia.  

Coping and healing 

Although Natives tend to have limited access to mental health services, Dr Khoiye-hayn-ee sees the pandemic as breaking down some of the stigma associated with mental health, and even some of those ‘who wouldn’t typically engage in therapy’ are getting treatment. 

This trend seems to be echoed more broadly with fewer no-shows for therapy appointments at Indian Health Services since implementing more online appointments, as reported by Indian Country Today.  

During the pandemic, Native leaders and elders have also emphasized the healing power of returning to Mother Nature. ‘Many of our people are out hunting, fishing and harvesting berries, and plants,’ comments Mahalia. ‘We are the land, so it has brought us renewal.’

Many others, including Dr Khoiye-hayn-ee, reported appreciating the extra time to reconnect with loved ones and Mother Nature and focus on the important things in life. In fact, focusing on interconnectedness, traditional values, and Nature can improve mental, psychological, and spiritual well-being for Natives as they are connected to our indigenous conceptualisation of happiness and ways of being. 

Dr Lomay stated in her interview with the American Psychological Association that some Natives are using this time to ‘strengthen their culture’. Everyone interviewed for the current article agreed that participating in a ceremony, spiritual connection, and traditions can help during this time. Even the American Psychiatric Association recommends Natives to ‘connect to cultural traditions and heritage’ during these challenging times.  

While many Natives no doubt face great barriers to mental wellness, there appears to be hope to get through the pandemic by relying on our strengths, resiliency, values, traditions, and communities. Additionally, the many positive practices of Native communities might serve as examples for others. 


Image credit: Lyonel Tso

Dr Amoneeta is the counselling centre director and a psychology faculty member at Webster University Thailand.

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