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As Pandemic Rips Through Indian Country, Indigenous Communities Work to Save Elders & Languages

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Image Credit: Facebook: Navajo Nation President & Vice President

We look at the fight to save tribal elders and Native language speakers as the pandemic rips through Indian Country, with Indigenous communities facing woefully inadequate healthcare, lack of governmental support, and the living legacy of centuries of colonialism. Native Americans have died from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white people across the U.S. To combat this crisis, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has prioritized elders who speak the Dakota and Lakota languages to receive vaccines. “Knowing that there were a lot of elders who were at really, really high risk, this was a concern from the very beginning,” says Jodi Archambault, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the former special assistant to President Barack Obama on Native American affairs. The parents of Nola Taken Alive, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, both recently died of COVID-19. “My parents were very humble people,” she says. “They played a very important role not only in my siblings’ and our family’s lives, but also to the entire community of Standing Rock.” We also speak with Alex White Plume, a former vice president and president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation who is a Lakota interpreter.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As the coronavirus death toll in the United States passes 410,000 and the vaccine rollout continues shakily across the country, we spend the rest of the hour looking at the fight to save tribal elders and Native language speakers who have been devastated by the virus.

Facing woefully inadequate healthcare, lack of government support, and the living legacy of centuries of colonialism, tribal communities have faced staggering losses as COVID-19 rips through Indian Country. Native Americans have died at at least twice the rate of white people across the United States. Pillars of tribal communities have been lost, along with their knowledge of Native languages. Jason Salsman, a spokesman for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, told The New York Times the losses were akin to a “cultural book-burning.”

To combat this crisis, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has prioritized elders who speak the Dakota and Lakota languages to receive the COVID vaccine. This is Tribal Health Director Margaret Gates speaking in December.

MARGARET GATES: We had met with Tribal Council, and at the request of leadership, as well, we added in the 65 and older and fluent speakers to be sort of first in line, because usually they will come down in the C, but we’ve bumped them up to the top, because they are our most important asset to our tribe and our people because of the language.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on this critical issue, we’re joined by three guests.

In Bismarck, North Dakota, Jodi Archambault is with us. She’s 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.

In Manderson, South Dakota, Alex White Plume is the former vice president and president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of Pine Ridge Reservation. He’s a Lakota interpreter.

And in Standing Rock, North Dakota, Nola Taken Alive is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council. Both of her parents recently died of COVID-19. Her father, Standing Rock Sioux elder Jesse “Jay” Taken Alive, was a fluent Lakota speaker and an ardent defender of the language, spoken by only 2,000 people. He was just 65.

We welcome all of you to Democracy Now! Nola, our condolences on the loss of both of your parents. If you can talk about them with us, share their life stories?

NOLA TAKEN ALIVE: Good morning. Thank you for having me on. It’s my pleasure to speak about my parents. But, first of all, I want to send my condolences out to those people who have also lost family members and relatives and loved ones to this ugly virus. But it’s my honor, again, to speak about my parents. And I want to say that my parents were very humble people. And to be able to speak about them, I will try to do my best.

My parents — I lost my mother in November of 2020. And about a month later, I lost our father to the virus, as well. They played a very important role not only in my siblings’ and our family’s lives, but also to the entire community of Standing Rock. And, you know, those would also say how important my dad’s role had played in all of Indian Country and all of probably North and South Dakota with his wisdom, his knowledge of the Lakota language, of treaties, of humanity, just the human issues that my dad would bring to the forefront, especially about healing. And my dad was the hugest advocate of not only the importance of being Lakota or understanding who we are as a people and the huge losses that we have suffered since time immemorial, but, you know, he continued to believe, and even to his last breath, people will label him as a spiritual warrior, which he was. Both my parents were. But just adding —

AMY GOODMAN: Nola, I wanted to share the words of your father.

NOLA TAKEN ALIVE: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Jesse Taken Alive speaking directly to young people about preserving the Lakota language.

JESSE TAKEN ALIVE: The language comes from the creator, so it doesn’t belong to one of us. The language belongs to all of us. So my message to all of the young people — the young men, the young women, the boys, the girls — this is your language. When you learn it, you’re going to be able to learn more about this beautiful thing called life, because that comes from Wakan Tanka. The opportunity to share your feelings, to share your thoughts, to express yourself comes with our language. And I ask you to take the courage. [speaking Lakota]. I believe that there will be a day that all of you will talk. [speaking Lakota]. Finally, in closing, I ask you to do this on behalf of all of us who are older than you. Take the courage to learn the language.

AMY GOODMAN: Jesse Taken Alive, who, together with his wife Cheryl, were both — came down with COVID and died in the last months. When was your dad and mom diagnosed, Nola?

NOLA TAKEN ALIVE: I believe it started out in the middle of October. My dad was diagnosed first. And then, about a week and a half later, my mom was diagnosed. And they fought hard, and they tried to stay with us, but, you know, it’s a tough virus, so…

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Jodi Archambault into this conversation. She worked in the Obama White House, also is the sister of the former tribal chair, David Archambault, of the Standing Rock Sioux. She’s speaking to us from Bismarck. You were the special assistant to President Obama for Native American affairs for the White House Domestic Policy Council. Talk about the policy of the Standing Rock Sioux around the issue of elders and keepers of the language.

JODI ARCHAMBAULT: Well, I think that every tribe has the ability to prioritize and make preferences for who receives the virus [sic] first. And knowing that —

AMY GOODMAN: You mean the vaccine first.

JODI ARCHAMBAULT: The vaccine, yeah. The vaccine, sorry. Knowing that there were a lot of elders who were at really, really high risk, this was a concern from the very beginning, from the onset of COVID. And I think that it took the leadership of the chairman, the Tribal Council to understand, from just going over the previous year’s losses and what has happened throughout the time. And I’m just really proud of them, because this is something that is in the decision-making powers of every tribal nation across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to ask Nola Taken Alive first about your name, Taken Alive, your family’s name. If you can talk about the origins of it? And then, you’re a member of the Tribal Council that decided to prioritize the elders who speak the Dakota and Lakota languages. And I’m wondering if you could respond to — you could tell us about the community response to that. But begin with your name, Taken Alive.

NOLA TAKEN ALIVE: Well, I think that there’s a couple of stories that originate back to our last name, Taken Alive, one of those stories being that a long time ago one of our ancestors was what you would call a police officer, or would, you know, take those in who would do such wrongdoings in the community, and, instead of killing them, would take them alive. So, it wasn’t a thing where we held that in honor as far as killing people. So, that was one of the stories.

As far as prioritizing our elders, we want to make sure — and this is something that dad always talked about, you know, as far as our language, and he’ll always say that our language is spiritual. When we talk about spiritual, we talk about our identity, of who we are. And, you know, it must be known, throughout the world, that Native Americans or American Indians weren’t granted Freedom of Religion Act until 1978. So, if you can think about that, I was only 1 years old, where our ancestors, or my parents, my grandparents, could actually pray and use our ceremonies in the open. Before that, it was outlawed. So, with our ceremonies also was our language. And also, we have to look back at the oppression that has happened to our people for generations, for centuries.

And, you know, you think back, 1 years old, it wasn’t until the late, I want to say, '70s, early ’80s, when my dad actually — you know, he grew up speaking the Lakota language since he was born. It was his first language. But he actually didn't start practicing our ceremonial ways until he was in his mid-twenties, late twenties, because of how that 1978, again, goes back to being able to openly and freely practice who we were or who we are. And so, I just want to reiterate that, because not all of the world understands where we are, that we even belong here or that we even exist. And I think our people have been romanticized, as far as — you know, “Do you still live in teepees? Do you still…?”

But, honestly, you know, my dad, I really am proud of him. My dad was a Lakota language teacher up until his passing, at the McLaughlin School. And he actually taught from his teepee. He actually — you know, he lived in a house, but he set up his teepee outside of his house, and he would set up his laptop and ran his extension cord and made sure that that spirit of the language, through the teepee, through — because he always reiterated that the language is spiritual. So, being in connection with the Earth, being in connection with everything around him, he wanted to make sure that he was teaching, you know, that he was passing his knowledge on to the younger generations. So I’m really proud of that, you know, and that was just up until October, my dad was still teaching from his teepee.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Alex White Plume into this conversation, the former vice president and president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of Pine Ridge Reservation, speaking to us from South Dakota. He is a Lakota interpreter. If you can talk about the effects of COVID-19 on your community, particularly the elders and keepers of the culture and the language — you are an interpreter — what this means for the Lakota and Dakota languages?

ALEX WHITE PLUME: Sure. Good morning to everybody.

I was really shocked last January when we — first time we heard this COVID. And so, my wife and I decided to isolate. And as we sat here on our land — we live out on our land; we don’t live up in housing or built-up areas — certain things happened. They implemented a curfew. And then, a while later, they introduced a lockdown, where we were like prisoners in our own house.

And me, personally, I served four years in Berlin, Germany, with the U.S. Army. I went to the German museum that they made for the Jews that they killed. And they had to have two forms of ID, one sewed on their jacket and another paper. And a few years ago, United States passed a law where we had to have two forms of ID.

So, I was just sitting here, and the impact on that lockdown, to me, was real frightening. I think it was too extreme. It seemed to me like they could have come up with more testings, bring more doctors, health people in, and go house to house and test everybody, and if someone’s sick, isolate them there. But instead, we were locked down like we were in prison. And psychologically, that really had an impact on a lot of us people, that we really knew we weren’t living free the way we’re supposed to, but we’re living in like a prisoner of war camp. So it really had a negative impact on many of us.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation, about 90% of us can’t find employment, were unemployed. Imagine 17 people living in a house with no food, their electricity is ready to get turned off, and then you’re locked down. And then the tribe never went to pay the electric company’s bill, so lights were being turned off. It was really a negative impact on us.

At the same time, many Lakota speakers were just dying from this new disease. We didn’t know how it came here. We live out in the open on the plains. We’re not close to any built-up cities. But some of our people might have went to the towns and caught it and came home, and that’s how it spread on the reservation. So it was a real scary time for most of us here on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

AMY GOODMAN: Alex White Plume, you’re planning to teach Lakota to children. Can you talk about the importance of teaching Lakota to more members of the tribe, and why you feel this is so critical?

ALEX WHITE PLUME: Sure. My wife had a school. She started Ama’s Freedom School. And so, we always taught culture. She taught them how to pick cherries, berries, turnips, how to butcher buffalo meat, how to tan hides. And she was just bringing them up culturally. And the language was really predominant. That’s the one we needed to learn.

And I’ll share a story about how I asked to marry her. I was sitting at the house. And her grandfather’s name was Mark Big Road. And we spoke Lakota. So, we were sitting in the living room and just enjoying a discussion, and she was sitting at the table. So, in Lakota, I ask Uncle Mark, “How do you ask a woman to marry you in Lakota?” And he just laughed and laughed. And she kind of looked up at me with one eye. And he said, “You know, you can’t take a woman and own her. You can’t declare her your wife. Our Lakota women are matriarchs, and they have power that you can’t control. And so I recommend to you that you sing a beautiful song. And if she likes the song, maybe she’ll marry you.” So, at the table, she was sitting there. I looked at her, and I sang a song that I knew. And here, she looked at me. She says, “OK, White Plume, I’ll take you for my man.”

And so, what Uncle Mark described was the description of marriage. It’s called tawicuton. Tawicuton — “ta” means “his”; “wi” is the sun; “cu,” you take part of the sun to create life. That is our definition of married people, two people living together. And that’s so important. It’s so different from the word “married.” You say “my wife” like you own a woman. That’s just contrary to Lakota belief. So, therefore, the Lakota language is real important. It’s a natural language that evolved over millions of years, with many different other species that were existing at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but we’re going to come back to talk about what’s happening with the Dakota Access pipeline, with President Biden stopping the building of the Keystone XL, but not DAPL. And, Alex, I’d like you to stay with us, because I want you to tell us about your late wife, the Lakota water and land defender, Debra White Plume. And also, I’d like to ask Jodi Archambault to stay with us, to understand why now Biden is making a distinction, has separated the Keystone XL from the Dakota Access pipeline. This is Democracy Now! I want to thank, and, once again, our deepest condolences, Nola, on the death of your mother and your father. But clearly their legacy continues and lives on. Nola Taken Alive, speaking to us from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation; Alex White Plume in South Dakota; Jodi Archambault in Bismarck, North Dakota. Stay with us. We’ll be back in 30 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Song for Mother Earth” by Lakota.

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Joe Biden Canceled Keystone XL. Indigenous Leaders Demand the Same for the Dakota Access Pipeline

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