COVID, Collective Resistance and Columbus: Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020

By Elizabeth Ellis Oct 11, 2020

Indigenous Peoples’ Day—October 12—celebrates the history and vibrancy of contemporary Native cultures. In many places, it feels like a festival, with music, vendors and community. In my hometown of New York City (which is located on Lenape homelands), we typically celebrate on Randall’s Island with drumming, dancing and stacks of puffy sugar-soaked frybread.

This event, like others across the nation, is a hard-won victory and the result of a longer battle to replace Columbus Day with observances that honor the many Indigenous cultures across the Americas. It gained traction in the late 1990s as coalitions of Indigenous leaders, activists and educators worked to re-educate Americans about the history of Christopher Columbus, the explorer many Americans think is responsible for “discovering” a hemisphere. Today, there’s growing awareness that Columbus’ expeditions involved the rape and enslavement of Native women and girls as well as the violent abuse of Taino and other Indigenous people in the Caribbean. 

That’s the essence of the day: Beauty and survival jostle alongside tragic history and ongoing oppression.

This year, not only are these kinds of celebratory gatherings impossible as COVID-19 continues to tear across the country, but joyful gatherings feel completely out of touch with the current conditions in Indigenous communities. The virus has exacerbated longstanding systemic inequalities and highlighted the ways that federal policies are harming Native people across North America.

For centuries, the federal government has failed to live up to its treaty promises to provide for and protect Native nations, and these failures have had devastating consequences in the COVID era. Today, many Native Americans, both those on reservations and in urban areas, reside in substandard and overcrowded housing; live without access to clean and safe drinking water; and face tremendous health disparities. Even before the outbreak of the virus, more than one-quarter of all Native Americans lived in poverty, and about 6 percent do not have indoor plumbing. 

These are not individual failures or accidental circumstances. Rather, this is the slow and deadly violence of the modern state, and the product of intentional neglect and discrimination that leaves Native people poorer, less healthy, and in more vulnerable conditions than their fellow Americans. Native Americans are nearly three times more likely to contract the coronavirus and three times more likely to die from the illness than white Americans. And given the statistical undercounting of Indigenous people in health-care settings due to racial misidentification, the true numbers are likely higher. 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, Indigenous people have experienced some of the highest mortality rates in the county. High rates of diabetes, obesity and other poverty-related health problems make Native Americans more vulnerable to the virus than other populations.

The Navajo Nation, which spreads across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, has been one of the hardest-hit locations. Due to pollution caused by mining and lack of basic infrastructure, about 40 percent of those who live on the Navajo Nation lack access to drinking water and haul water or rely on water trucks. This lack of clean, running water makes it nearly impossible for Navajo people to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to constantly wash their hands and surfaces. 

In Mississippi, rates of COVID are 10 times higher among the Mississippi Choctaw, the only federally recognized Native nation in the state, than among the rest of Mississippi’s population. So far, more than 1,000 people or more than 10 percent of all Mississippi Choctaws have contracted coronavirus, and many have lost multiple family members. 

Exacerbating the crises within Indigenous communities across North America, the Trump administration’s border wall and immigration policies have caused further devastation to many Native communities. Thousands of migrants, including many who are from Indigenous communities within Central America, have been exposed to the virus in U.S. detention centers. By housing migrants in these dense holding centers—without proper medical care, sanitation or personal protective equipment, and then deporting them—U.S. immigration practices have exported the virus to Indigenous communities across Guatemala and Mexico

The border wall and these immigration policies have brought further violence and risk of exposure to Native nations whose homelands straddle the U.S.-Mexico border. Native nations like the Kumeyaay in California and the Tohono O’odham, whose lands stretch between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora, have fought for years against the construction of Trump’s border wall through their lands. Within the last month, multiple Kumeyaay and Tohono O’odham demonstrators have been arrested and forcibly removed from their own homelands as they attempted to halt construction of the wall and protect their sacred lands.

Given these multiple unfolding crises, how can we consider celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year? In this moment, it is easy to feel cynical about a holiday that supposedly honors Native people as federal policies enact ongoing harm against Native nations. 

But as Americans consider how to recognize October 12, we should also remember that beyond cultural celebration, Indigenous Peoples’ Day has also functioned as an opportunity for political action and to bring visibility to Indigenous issues since the 1980s. Since the American Indian Movement (AIM) brought attention to racism, police violence and oppression of Native Americans in the 1970s, activists have used the holiday to stage protests against racist statues and memorials, the border wall, and the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women across North America. Given Trump’s outspoken support of Columbus Day, the administration’s attacks on Native people and land, and dismal handling of the COVID crisis in Indian country, it would also seem that supporting Indigenous people is a logical and necessary component of the larger resistance against white supremacy in the United States.  

Native nations and organizations across the country have already taken action to sustain their kin and communities. Tribal governments have sued the federal government to secure emergency funding. Indigenous mutual aid organizations like the Far East Navajo COVID-19 Response Fund and Bvlbancha Collective have distributed emergency supplies to affected communities. And Indigenous women and girls across the country have filmed themselves dancing to heal the people and spread hope. All these efforts are just part of the latest chapter of Native resilience and the caretaking ethos that helped our ancestors survive previous pandemics from smallpox outbreaks to the 1918 flu pandemic.  

In fact, Indigenous Peoples’ Day has always been a celebration of collective resistance. Amid this crushing pandemic and uprisings against racism and police violence, its message endures. We Americans—Indigenous or not, on whichever side of the U.S. border—have to show up for each other: when we’re on social media, when we’re teaching history or witnessing injustice now, when it comes time to donate money or assistance to Native governments and organizations, and when we’re voting. 

We can commit to changes that will remedy the long-standing inequalities that have created this crisis in Native America. We can commit to emergency aid to help Indigenous communities fight COVID-19; more investment in tribal health and infrastructure; and an end to xenophobic invasion of Native border communities. 

While we may not be able to dance, dream and eat together this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the commemoration teaches that we can pursue joy and justice at the same time. And we will do both in the future and in each other’s company.

Dr. Elizabeth Ellis (Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma) is an assistant professor of history at New York University where she teaches early American and Native American history.