The virus has killed
American Indians at especially high rates, robbing tribes of precious
bonds and repositories of language and tradition.
Pall bearers with the
coffin of Jesse Taken Alive, a Lakota member of the Standing
Rock Tribe, who died from Covid-19, at Kesling Funeral Home
in Mobridge, S.D., last month.
STANDING ROCK RESERVATION, N.D. The virus took Grandma Delores
first, silencing an 86-year-old voice that rang with Lakota songs
and stories. Then it came for Uncle Ralph, a stoic Vietnam veteran.
And just after Christmas, two more elders of the Taken Alive family
were buried on the frozen North Dakota prairie: Jesse and Cheryl,
husband and wife, who died a month apart.
It takes your breath away, said Ira Taken Alive, the
couples oldest son. The amount of knowledge they held,
and connection to our past.
One by one, those connections are being severed as the coronavirus
tears through ranks of Native American elders, inflicting an incalculable
toll on bonds of language and tradition that flow from older generations
to the young.
Its like were having a cultural book-burning,
said Jason Salsman, a spokesman for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation
in eastern Oklahoma, whose grandparents contracted the virus but
survived. Were losing a historical record, encyclopedias.
One day soon, there wont be anybody to pass this knowledge
The loss of tribal elders has swelled into a cultural crisis as
the pandemic has killed American Indians and Alaska Natives at nearly
twice the rate of white people, deepening what critics call the
deadly toll of a tattered health system and generations of harm
and broken promises by the U.S. government.
Jessie Taken Alive-Rencountre,
left, with her sister Nola Taken Alive on Christmas morning.
Their parents died a month apart, both from the coronavirus.
This sisters placed a
bundle of sage in their mothers coffin.
The deaths of Muscogee elders strained the tribes burial
program. They were grandparents and mikos, traditional leaders who
knew how to prepare for annual green-corn ceremonies and how to
stoke sacred fires their ancestors had carried to Oklahoma on the
Trail of Tears. One tiny Methodist church on the reservation recently
lost three cherished great-aunts who would sneak candy and smiles
to restless children during Sunday services.
Well never be able to get that back, Mr. Salsman
Tribal nations and volunteer groups are now trying to protect their
elders as a mission of cultural survival.
Navajo women started a campaign to deliver meals and sanitizer
to high-desert trailers and remote homes without running water,
where elders have been left stranded by quarantines and lockdowns
of community centers. Some now post colored cardboard in their windows:
green for OK, red for Help.
In western Montana, volunteers led by a grocery-store worker put
together turkey dinners and hygiene packets to deliver to Blackfeet
Nation elders. In Arizona, the White Mountain Apache sent out thermometers
and pulse oximeters and taught young people to monitor their grandparents
Across the country, tribes are now putting elders and fluent Indigenous
language speakers at the head of the line for vaccinations. But
the effort faces huge obstacles. Elders who live in remote locations
often have no means to get to the clinics and hospitals where vaccinations
are administered. And there is deep mistrust of the government in
a generation that was subjected without consent to medical testing,
shipped off to boarding schools and punished for speaking their
own language in a decades-long campaign of forced assimilation.
Ira Taken Alive at the
burial of his parents. It takes your breath away,
he said. The amount of knowledge they held, and connection
to our past.
Mourners paid their respects
at the burial service.
About a year into the pandemic, activists say there is still is
no reliable death toll of Native elders. They say their deaths are
overlooked or miscounted, especially off reservations and in urban
areas, where some 70 percent of Indigenous people live.
Adding to the problem, tribal health officials say their sickest
members can essentially vanish once they are transferred out of
small reservation health systems to larger hospitals with intensive-care
We dont know what happens to them until we see a funeral
announcement, said Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban
Indian Health Institute.
The virus claimed fluent Choctaw speakers and dressmakers from
the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. It took a Tulalip family
matriarch in Washington State, then her sister and brother-in-law.
It killed a former chairman of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in California
who spent decades fighting to preserve Native arts and culture.
It has killed members of the American Indian Movement, a group founded
in 1968 that became the countrys most radical and prominent
civil rights organization for American Indian rights.
On the Navajo Nation, where 565 of the reservations 869 deaths
are among people 60 and older, the pandemic has devastated the ranks
of hataalii, traditional medicine men and women.
When the virus exploded across the Navajo Nation, traditional healers
who use prayer, songs and herbs as treatments tried to protect themselves
with masks and gloves. They wrapped ceremonial objects in plastic.
They set hand sanitizer outside traditional hogan dwellings.
A funeral procession
for Jesse and Cheryl Taken Alive.
But people came, seeking help with their grief or prayers for ailing
relatives. And the healers got sick.
Now, remote meetings of the Diné Hataalii Association, a
group of Navajo medicine men and women, include updates on who has
died, members said. The roster of loss now includes Avery Dennys
75-year-old grandfather and 78-year-old aunt, who both died of the
When they pass on, all that knowledge is gone forever, never
to be retained, said Mr. Denny, a member of the association
and professor at Diné College. Its just lost.
Cemeteries are filling up on the rolling plains of the Standing
Rock Sioux in western North Dakota, where families like the Taken
Alives have buried multiple grandparents, matriarchs and patriarchs.
Standing Rock has recorded 24 deaths during the pandemic.
In 2016, the tribes fight to block an oil pipeline propelled
Standing Rock to international fame, drawing thousands of activists
to protest camps that sprawled along the Missouri River. This winter,
Standing Rocks families are waging a lonelier battle as the
virus rages through crowded multigenerational homes where elders
raise children and pass along their language a crucial role
that has made them incredibly vulnerable.
Diane Gates, 75, one of Standing Rocks first elders to die
of the virus, lived with multiple family members, relatives said.
Her 75-year-old sister-in-law, Reva, who recently had open-heart
surgery, also lives with several grandchildren in an isolated corner
of the reservation. They see few visitors and have a lock on their
gate, and they try to protect themselves with herbs and steam treatments.
But there is always the risk of what a granddaughter could bring
home from work.
Tribal health workers say they are also tired and overwhelmed,
the strains of fighting Covid compounded by isolation, distance
and a lack of resources.
The Fort Yates Indian
Health Service Hospital on the Standing Rock Reservation.
The pandemic has challenged the health care system for American
Statistics on Covid-19
cases were written on a white board for contact tracers in
their offices on the Standing Rock Reservation.
The Standing Rock Sioux had to create their own contact-tracing
team after tribal officials said governments in North Dakota and
South Dakota failed to track the virus. Over the summer, bureaucratic
conflicts scuttled an effort to set up a testing site on the southern
end of the reservation, forcing people without cars to hitchhike
or walk for miles to get swabbed. Those who do recover from the
virus often find themselves stranded at hospitals hundreds of miles
from the reservation, and have to call a tiny team of drivers to
shuttle them home.
In October, as an outbreak of coronavirus swarmed across North
Dakota, Rita Hunte, 66, woke one morning gasping for breath in her
riverside community of Cannon Ball. She called her daughter and
said: My girl, I dont know what to do.
She spent two days in the 12-bed Indian Health Service hospital
on the reservation, begging to be transferred out, her daughter,
Marlo, said. She was taken to a hospital in Fargo where she lingered
for weeks, mostly unconscious and on a breathing machine, as her
daughter washed her hair and tried to move her arms and legs to
reduce the swelling. She died on Nov. 29.
Ms. Hunte was one of just 290 people who still spoke fluent Dakota,
and in her work with a tribal cancer program, she would often pray
with patients before they traveled to Bismarck or the Mayo Clinic
Since her death, her widower, Marlon, has been trying to stay busy
with church services where he plays acoustic guitar and lays hands
on people as they testify to the goodness of the Lord. But his daughter
said that Mr. Huntes role as a respected elder has paradoxically
isolated him even further. Some neighbors now keep their distance
because they are uneasy about asking whether he is doing OK, Marlo
I feel a little lost there every now and then, Mr. Hunte
Marlon Hunte, whose wife
Rita died of Covid-19, preaching at an evening service at
Word of God Ministries church in Fort Yates, N.D.
Mr. Hunte prayed with
Helen Flood, 76, of Gering, Neb., an Oglala Lakota woman whose
husband was hospitalized with the coronavirus.
Many of the elders now perishing are dying after months of monastic
precautions. When the pandemic first erupted, Jesse Taken Alive
helped record public-service messages in Lakota urging fellow elders
to protect themselves. He set up a computer in the tepee beside
his home where he taught remote language classes.
But as the pandemic grew worse, requests from his community piled
up: Help with funeral prayers. Help with a ceremony. He had been
a tribal chairman, and he and his wife, Cheryl, had spent their
lives trying to help people on Standing Rock, whether it was fighting
for tribal land and sovereignty or addressing a rash of suicides.
We tried our best to keep everyone away, their daughter
Nola Taken Alive said. But my Dad had a hard time saying no
when people needed him.
The couple ended up on separate floors of the same hospital in
Fargo. When Cheryl died in November, the fight began to fade in
Jesse, said his son, Ira, who is also vice-chairman of the Standing
Rock Sioux Tribe. Jesse Taken Alive died on Dec. 14. The family
has been reflecting on the loss Delores, the walking dictionary
of Lakota linguistics. Ralphs quiet dignity. Jesse and Cheryls
deep faith and love for each other and their people.
Well still be here, Nola Taken Alive said. But
its going to be a struggle. How do I fill their shoes?
The coffins of Jesse
and Cheryl Taken Alive, who died one month apart.
Jack Healy is a Colorado-based national correspondent who focuses
on rural places and life outside America's City Limits
signs. He has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and is a graduate of
the University of Missouris journalism school. @jackhealynyt