Native Americans Fight Multiple COVID-19 Crises

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Mar 30, 2020

On March 27, chairman Cedric Cromwell of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts published a statement saying the federal government was taking action to disestablish their reservation. “On the very day that the United States has reached a record 100,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and our Tribe is desperately struggling with responding to this devastating pandemic—the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed me that the Secretary of the Interior has ordered that our reservation be disestablished and that our land be taken out of trust,” Cromwell wrote. 

After questioning the reason for this move, Cromwell continued, “Regardless of the answer, we the People of the First Light have lived here since before there was a Secretary of the Interior since before there was a State of Massachusetts, since before the Pilgrims arrived 400 years ago.”

Cromwell’s alarm-sounding is valid, as reports from Vox and the Los Angeles Times confirm that the COVID-19 crisis is hitting Native American reservations particularly hard. The LA Times reported on March 29 that the Navajo Nation reservation confirmed its first case on March 17. Days later, there were nearly 115 cases with two deaths as a result of the virus. Factor in high poverty and unemployment rates, a lack of clean drinking water and electricity, and stark health disparities, and “COVID-19 could be a perfect storm for Indian Country,” executive director for the Native American Financial Officers Association Dante Desiderio told Vox in a March 25 article.

To make sure people living on reservations get help, Ethel Branch, a former attorney general for the Navajo Nation, started a GoFundMe page to help the most vulnerable with food donations. As a result, The LA Times reported that hundreds of families have received baskets that include flour, beans, rice, Tylenol and other necessities. “We have to all do our part, because who knows if the government support will do anything,” Branch told the Times. The new $2 trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill includes $8 billion for Native American tribal governments and a $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund for all tribes.  

Yet even with a pandemic in full swing and events being postponed en masse around the country, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska confirmed Cromwell’s ire in a March 30 tweet from their national news outlet Indianz, that the U.S. Supreme Court will still hear McGirt v. Oklahoma on April 21. This case would decide whether much of the reservation land in Oklahoma indeed belongs to the Native Americans


If Cromwell and other tribal leaders have anything to say about it, the federal government is in for a fight. “These are our lands, these are the lands of our ancestors, and these will be the lands of our grandchildren,”  wrote Cromwell in his announcement. “This Administration has come and it will go. But we will be here, always.  And we will not rest until we are treated equally with other federally recognized tribes and the status of our reservation is confirmed.”