Almost one year into a global pandemic that is taxing health care systems and decimating communities, we are learning that Native people are 5.3 times more likely than white people to be hospitalized due to COVID-19. It’s the largest disparity for any racial or ethnic group in the U.S.
The devastation that this disease is causing in Indian Country is a by-product of deep-seated institutional failures and is not the first time Native Americans have been subject to the deadly impacts of widespread disease.
This outcome is the result of a system built by more than 500 years of violence, dispossession and destructive policies – a system that resulted in inadequate housing, limited availability of quality health care, and the general inaccessibility of the privilege to work remotely and quarantine safely at home.
For all of these reasons, our communities are more vulnerable to COVID-19. And because the disease disproportionately impacts our elders, COVID-19 threatens not only these beloved anchors of our communities, but also the vital cultural and linguistic knowledge that they hold. In losing them, we also risk losing key links to our values, traditions and who we are as a people.
Native peoples have fought long and hard to protect and provide for our communities despite the destructive systems that bear down on us – protecting our sovereign rights when they have been trampled on, providing services for our communities when they have been left behind and reinvigorating traditions that were almost lost to forced assimilation. Through our persistent resilience, we have survived genocide, and we have thrived.
But it is long past time for the rest of American society to stand alongside us. Together, we must tell the full, unsanitized history of how and why we got here. Until we break down the long-held assumptions, erasure and distorted history on equal terms, we can’t begin to work together to build a thriving future based on mutual honesty, respect and accountability.
Last week, the state of California took a crucial step in that direction by convening the first meeting of the California Truth and Healing Council. As a member of the council, I am charged with articulating one of the worst chapters of state-sponsored violence this country has ever known – the genocide perpetuated against tribal nations in the early days of California statehood.
This will be a five-year long process that will seek to bring to light the stories, documents and impacts of the dark saga that underpins the California Dream. This journey will require that the council and our communities delve into historical trauma after having experienced the collective ignorance of these histories for too long.
This will not be an easy task, but I believe the council can serve as a hub to connect the many rich histories of Native peoples and establish a fuller and truer history of California. My hope is that this work will serve as a more honest premise from which we can pursue restorative and reparative laws, policies and collective actions.
This progress will also require a culture shift. This council’s findings must find their way into museums, schoolbooks, legislative hearings and dinner table conservations. Californians should know whose stolen land they live on; wonder whose stolen water they are drinking and appreciate the rich cultures which could never be fully stolen from us.
Together we must ask the questions that link our past to our present, like why our state motto is “Eureka,” why California has such a high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and why Native students are still forced to build Spanish missions out of sugar cubes.
This Truth and Healing Council is historic in its scope and nature, and potential for impact, but it is really just the beginning. What this council finds will shape how we move as one state and many tribes that together deliver on a promise for all people.