As COVID-19 rampages through the U.S., we look at how the rapid spread of the disease is affecting Native American communities, which have already faced disproportionate infection and death rates throughout the pandemic. We speak to Jodi Archambault, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and former special assistant to President Obama for Native American affairs. We also speak with Protect the Sacred founder Allie Young of the Navajo Nation.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, in this special broadcast, we look at this year’s historic election and the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. We begin in North Dakota, which has the highest COVID-19 death rate of any state or country in the world, with one in every thousand residents dead from the virus. South Dakota’s death rate is nearly as bad, after both Republican governors spent months downplaying the crisis. As COVID-19 ravages the Dakotas, we turn to look at how the rapid spread of COVID-19 is affecting Native American communities.
We begin with two guests. Jodi Archambault is a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the former special assistant to President Obama for Native American affairs for the White House Domestic Policy Council. She’s in Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota. And in Farmington, New Mexico, we’re joined by Allie Young, a citizen of Navajo Nation, founder of Protect the Sacred. She lives in Arizona. I began by asking Jodi Archambault to talk about the pandemic’s devastating effect on Native Americans.
JODI ARCHAMBAULT: This has been a tough several months, just hoping that the government takes action. The state government, the way that they behave and the way that they react affects our people directly, mostly because we have some of the highest rates of the underlying conditions that make COVID-19 a deadly disease. And so, we’re having a lot of people perish. We’re having a lot of death, a lot of hospitalizations.
And it’s affecting us in ways that is not widely known by the rest of America. We have very few years — we have about maybe a decade, maybe 15 years, where we have to save our language, our Lakota language, our Dakota language. We also have other tribes in North Dakota, like the Arikara, the Mandan and the Hidatsa. Most of the speakers of our languages are over the age of 70. And we don’t have very much time to spend with them and learn and protect and revitalize our languages. And COVID-19 has put on an additional layer of risk, that is just putting us into a very difficult time.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jodi Archambault, how did it get to this stage, especially in the Native communities of the state? How did the pandemic spread so rapidly in your community?
JODI ARCHAMBAULT: It didn’t spread very rapidly at first. As you know, the COVID-19 hit the cities first, and hit Seattle and New York City. In North Dakota and South Dakota, we shut down the businesses and took a lot of precautions early on, until about May. And North and South Dakota were the first states to open their doors to business as usual — restaurants. People were shy at first. But at this point, there’s a lot of people who have followed the line of thinking that COVID-19 is a hoax, or it’s some kind of Democrat conspiracy. And a lot of people refuse to wear masks, even with a mask mandate.
This has all accelerated on the reservations. Reservations or tribal nations, such as Eagle Butte, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Sisseton, Wahpeton, Rosebud, they’ve all installed roadblocks. They’ve all implemented roadblocks to stop traffic and outsiders from coming on the reservation. And the response to their action to protect tribal members, elders and the like was for the governor, Noem, to torture them and hold them hostage with funding. She has coordinated with the Trump administration to make it difficult to receive the federal resources that are allocated to the tribal governments, and have used that as a stick for them to try to force them to take the roadblocks down. And rather than supporting them and thanking them for trying to address the lack of health services available on the reservation, she has made it more and more difficult for people, for our tribes to protect ourselves.
AMY GOODMAN: North Dakota governor — can you talk about his originally saying that people who are healthcare workers who test positive for COVID should remain working if they are asymptomatic, and treat COVID-19 patients, and Governor Burgum then being forced to back down after the outcry, saying no to a mask mandate, then saying yes?
JODI ARCHAMBAULT: I’ll just tell you that from — we don’t have — it’s really hard to speak up in North Dakota. The news sources out here don’t cover an alternate perspective. But I will say that the Nurses Association, an advocacy group, did issue a press release after Governor Burgum said that they could go back to work while they were testing COVID-positive. That was last week on Wednesday. And within hours, there was a pushback from the Nurses Association. None of the hospitals have taken him up on the offer. And it’s ridiculous that the leadership’s response to being the worst COVID rates in the world would be to allow nurses to infect other nurses, other doctors and other patients by coming to work with COVID. It’s the most preposterous type of government action that I’ve ever heard of.
So, the business is — the business of the hospital is asking for this kind of, I guess, allowance, to allow sick people without symptoms to come and spread? But actually, this has always — the situation that we’re talking about is the lack of compassion for those elders, not just Native elders, but all elders, all people with underlying health conditions, like cancer. It is an absolute choice, a clear choice, to choose profit over people. So, the governor isn’t putting people first; he’s putting profit first.
And the same with Governor Noem down in South Dakota. They have been — she has been actively asking people to come to South Dakota, come to the hottest spot — second-hottest spot in the world and have your vacation, because we don’t care if you wear a mask or not. That’s what her response is, and to increase the risk that tribal governments — by forcing them to take down their barriers, or trying to force them down — they haven’t taken them down. It’s remarkable that they’re able to stick to that governance decision, that is saving lives on the reservations. It’s still spreading. It’s still spreading on the reservations because there is active commerce between reservations and cities. And so it’s getting in.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to bring in Allie Young to the conversation, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and founder of Protect the Sacred.
Allie, welcome to Democracy Now! Could you talk about the situation in Navajo Nation in terms of COVID? And also maybe comment on the fact that not all Native areas have gaming, but quite a significant percentage do, and often it’s the gaming revenues that help provide health services or social services. Could you talk about the impact of the shutdowns on the ability of Native peoples to provide health services, as well?
ALLIE YOUNG: Yeah. Yá’át’ééh, hello, everyone. Thank you for having me.
Yeah, right now we are seeing another surge in Navajo Nation, as we expected. We, as you all know, were the number one hot spot in the country per capita in the spring. And we worked hard to flatten the curve, and we were able to. There was a day where we had zero reported cases. But recently, because of the spikes across the country, what we’ve been seeing throughout the nation, with some of the rallies — I mean, you know, some of our border towns around here are Trump territory, and so there were rallies that I witnessed. And a lot of our people come into these border towns to do their shopping, because on Navajo Nation, you know, we have like 13 grocery stores. So we have to travel to these territories where they’re not thinking about — they’re not wearing masks, and they’re not thinking about their neighbors who have been impacted.
And then, to your point about the gaming industry in Native communities, at Navajo Nation we have some casinos and hotels, as well, and they’ve all been shut down. And it has impacted us economically, financially. And as far as healthcare, we’ve had to — you know, I worked on a PSA through Protect the Sacred that called out for medical volunteers. And that’s the state that we were in, that we had to make that call out for PPE supplies, medical volunteers, because we just lack all of those resources and funding in our tribal communities, when we’re supposed to be guaranteed quality healthcare through our treaties with the federal government.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Allie Young, you’ve talked about feeling that so many Native elders are suffering as a result of the decades of uranium mining, particularly of pulmonary and respiratory diseases, making them even more vulnerable. We’re talking something like over 600 people just on the Navajo Reservation have died as of this weekend of COVID.
ALLIE YOUNG: Yes. That is something that I am trying to connect the dots to anyone I speak to: Let’s not forget about how the federal government greenlit these companies coming in to extract our minerals on tribal reservations. In Navajo Nation, for 30-plus years, we had Peabody up in the northwestern region of Navajo Nation, which was our hot spot within the nation. And a lot of our people up there — the waters and our lands are contaminated by uranium. And our elders had to work through — and even my own uncles — you know, they just shut down last year, in 2019. So, a lot of our people have worked through those unsafe environments and certainly have those preexisting and underlying conditions, that we need to consider in why we’re so vulnerable to this virus.
AMY GOODMAN: Jodi Archambault, can you, overall, talk about the massive voter turnout, at least increase in Native American turnout, not noted in the mainstream media?
JODI ARCHAMBAULT: Sure. I just want to say that despite the risk of being exposed to COVID, the numbers were incredible. And I think that this is something that is often overlooked by mainstream media, only because mainstream media has a tendency to leave out the full picture when it comes to Native Americans. In fact, CNN did an infographic, and they labeled — they did a breakdown of all the different people who voted in the election, and for Native Americans, they didn’t have us labeled as Native Americans. They called us “something else,” 6%.
AMY GOODMAN: We have that actual graphic right here. It says “white.” It says “Latino.” It says “Black,” and then “something else,” and then “Asian.”
JODI ARCHAMBAULT: Yeah, yeah. And social media, we are very much — our resiliency is through our humor. And so, it just took off. Everybody kept saying, like, “Custer said, 'Yeah, they sure are something else.'” You know, Custer, from the last couple centuries ago. And a lot of people have just taken it as a call to try to bring attention to the people at CNN, to the people at the mainstream, who just continuously don’t see us. They don’t see us, and it’s intentional, because we are a reminder of the bloodshed that it took to make this country. We’re not congruent with the American dream.
And we are still here. We’re actually leading, leading the way on how to handle pandemics, because we’ve been through so many of them. And it’s so much ingrained in our communities that we’re not seeing this as — we’re not victims in this; we’re actually ready to fight. We’re ready to push back and do what we can to protect ourselves, because it’s the only way we’ve made it this far. And we know that people in America don’t see us, so we have to do it for ourselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Still with us in Arizona [sic] is Allie Young, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and founder of Protect the Sacred.
Allie, if you could start off by talking about what you did in Arizona? Talk about the horseback ride that you took.
ALLIE YOUNG: I work with my father, who lives in Rough Rock, New — or, in Rough Rock, Arizona. Sorry. And we work together, and I’ve always voted in Arizona, resided with my father. And we’ve always done trail rides. That’s our bonding thing. And we’ve done them throughout Navajo Nation. And this year, when we were thinking about the election, he wanted to do a Biden-Harris trail ride. And when I called him back and thought about the significance of a trail ride and the respect that our people have for the horses — and, you know, as we call it, horse medicine. And horse medicine is when you are in rhythm with the horse, and almost in sync, and you’re reconnected and refocused as you ride in our own homelands and are reminded of exactly what our ancestors have fought for, our lands to still be in our own homelands, and our cultures and also our right to vote.
So, I went back to my father, and I said, “So, what’s happening with the trail ride?” And he said, “Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think we’re going to do it.” And I said, “I think we should do it. But with Protect the Sacred, I have to be nonpartisan, so if it’s more of a getting folks out to the polls so that they can cast their ballots, I think we should do that,” because at the same time, I think that our Native American youth — I was hearing on the ground that they weren’t feeling very motivated to participate in this election, as a lot of other communities of color, because, you know, why continue participating in a system that has never worked for us and is not working for us?
I often find that our Native youth, you know, we are more educated than ever. That’s why there’s this resistance, because we know our history and what has happened to us historically. And also, we’re more connected to technology and information than ever, and we’re more eager to reconnect to our cultures, and that respect for our ancestors and our elders is still there. And so I wanted to strategize and use that and say, “OK, let’s find something that will excite our Native youth that’s rooted in our culture, that will also help us reclaim Arizona,” because, you know, I keep saying that Arizona is Indigenous DNA, it is not Republican DNA, as I heard on the news when I was watching about a month before we decided to do trail — ride to the polls. And that’s what really motivated me, is because Arizona has this deep history of many tribal communities, and it is not just a place where white conservatives go to retire. And this is our homeland. And we wanted — I called on my people: “Let’s show up. Let’s show them that we’re still here. Let’s be represented. Let’s make sure that we have a seat at the table and that our voices are heard.” And so, that’s why it was so important. And I’m so happy that a lot of young people did come out. It did excite them. I got so many positive messages from our efforts. And I think it was a positive turnout.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Allie, I wanted to ask you about that. What were the results, from what you’ve been able to tell? Not so much, obviously, because the exit polls didn’t factor in or count Native American votes, but what’s been the result in the actual vote totals that you’ve been able to see so far?
ALLIE YOUNG: Yeah, well, I believe around 60-something thousand Navajos in Navajo Nation. So, Coconino County, Navajo County — which is where I did all of my work, and I vote in Navajo County — and Apache County, they all overlap the Navajo Nation. And in those areas, Navajo people turned out to vote. I think 84% of those who had registered turned out to vote, and 97% of those who cast their ballot voted for Joe Biden. And that’s just incredible. That just shows the contribution of the Native vote in key swing states, in not only Navajo Nation, but there is a map that compares tribal communities, and all of those tribal communities voted blue. And so, we came out strong. I think we did do a great job in reclaiming Arizona, saying that we’re still here, that we’ve always been here, and that now we’re going to keep working to hold this new administration accountable, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of message do you have for what is the most effective way to get first-time voters involved, to make them feel like they really are making a difference, when it’s — you know, they haven’t done this before?
ALLIE YOUNG: My strategy was all around, you know, you’ve got to think about what we’re working within. With young people, we are very tuned in to social media, so definitely it is a powerful tool. So, connecting with them that way, we had a huge social media strategy, and also layering in the cultural revitalization, and particularly with Native youth, but also, I think, with a lot of other youth across other communities of color, because I think we’re in this amazing moment where all of our communities of color are reconnecting to our cultures and really proud of who we are and where we come from. So, using that and saying, “Let’s show up in that way. Let’s show, through social media, in fighting for our representation,” that takes work. And we have to — you know, we’re not just going to automatically be talked about in the media. We have to show up.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Allie, I’m wondering just if you could quickly say what your main expectations are of the new Biden administration’s policy toward Native American people.
ALLIE YOUNG: Yeah. Well, we’re definitely going to be making sure that we’re represented, especially when it comes to climate change. We do want a seat at the table. We want to be in that conversation, because we have just incredible knowledge about the ways that we respect Mother Earth, that we honor Mother Earth, and those are things that will end up saving Mother Earth. And so, learning from us and collaborating with us, and also on issues of — we’re still in COVID-19, and it’s still severely impacting our tribal communities, so we’re expected — we’re expecting them to work with us in helping us to bring the funding and the aid that we need, because $8 billion was not enough in the initial stimulus package.
AMY GOODMAN: Navajo activist Allie Young, the founder of Protect the Sacred, and Jodi Archambault, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She served as the former special assistant to President Obama for Native American affairs for the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Coming up, Juan González on how the corporate media got it wrong, missed the real story about Latinx voter turnout in the 2020 election.