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While some have said no one could have seen this pandemic coming, I know one person who could have: my 84-year-old grandmother. My grandmother grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1930s. At that time, Native Americans were oppressed by the government, which removed their children and sent them to boarding schools, kept Native people from voting, and forcibly sterilized Native women. Our oral histories tell us this moment is like the biological warfare vulnerable Indigenous people have already experienced throughout the centuries; just like 300 years ago when the U.S. government entered into land treaties with tribal nations, offering them the promise of warm support with blankets but instead delivered smallpox, which reportedly killed over 20 million people. Flash forward to 2020, and there are 2.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S. We are still vulnerable, dealing with treaty-promised healthcare systems that have never been fully realized due to never being fully funded, disproportionately compromised immune systems, and lack of efficient access to care. These broken promises feel like an infected smallpox blanket meant to fool our people, especially as we’re now faced with the COVID-19 pandemic that has put our communities at risk.

“When you look at the health disparities in Indian Country—high rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, asthma and then you combine that with the overcrowded housing situation where you have a lot of people in homes with an elder population who may be exposed or carriers—this could be like a wildfire on a reservation and get out of control in a heartbeat,” said Kevin Allis, chief executive of the National Congress of American Indians in a recent interview with The Washington Post.

My own family is a snapshot of many of the risk factors for complications from COVID-19: My grandmother is diabetic, my aunties and uncles are over 60 years old, one aunt has lupus and another has liver issues, a close friend has chronic lung disease, and my nephew takes immunocompromising medication to address his mental health needs. All Native people have this same snapshot within their extended family circle, and racial inequities in the U.S. healthcare system only make things more dire. As has been widely reported, the virus poses a special danger to older people, and in Native communities, elders are less likely to be kept apart from others who might be infected. There are often multiple families living in one home due to housing shortages, and Lakota grandparents are also raising their grandchildren at a rate of 58%. Indeed, I was one of those children.  

The special risk this disease poses to Native elders in particular makes it imperative that we act now. Our elders carry oral history along with the traditional medicinal and healing knowledge that can help save not only Native people from this pandemic, but all of us. It can offer the wisdom to help secure our futures against climate change and other environmental threats to come. This is far from the first time there has been an existential threat to our cultures, practices, and languages. The Indian boarding school era disrupted the intergenerational traditional teachings with forced separation of Native families in the late 1800s to mid-1900s. Throughout U.S. history, colonization, land grabs, and forced relocations destroyed a way of life and damaged the very soul of our nation. This pandemic is just the latest front in an ongoing fight to save our cultures, our health, and our lives.

“The tribes in the Great Plains are engaged in modern day warfare against this disease,” said Jerilyn Church, executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board. “We are in a fight to protect our wisdom keepers, our first language speakers, and our culture teachers, and we are unarmed. The armor we need are testing systems, personal protective equipment, and medicines. We need infrastructure to care for the infirmed and to hold the anticipated casualties should this disease spread exponentially within our reservation borders.”

While some federal funding has been promised for tribes, it’s still not clear when this support will arrive. I have heard reports from tribal officials estimating the support may come as late as August. In areas where COVID-19 has the highest rates in Indian Country, Navajo Nation doctors are fearing N95 masks will run out in less than three weeks. Traditional philanthropy also isn’t a solution; the resources needed to continue to carry Indigenous cultural practices and knowledge forward have not been treated as a priority as we see less than .04% of philanthropic funding going to Native American people.

That is why I jumped into the fight to support tribal healthcare networks with the procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment and rapid testing kits. 

As Native people, we can’t rely on the government or philanthropy to keep us safe, so it’s that much more important that individuals and other communities rally to protect the lives and crucial wisdom and culture of Native people. Right now, I’m taking action with Red Dawn Foster, a South Dakota state senator and COO of Return to the Heart Foundation, to provide swift resources to fight COVID-19 by identifying and supporting urgent safety needs with current distribution partners: Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board, Northern California tribes, Indigenous Mutual Aid-Michigan tribes, Mauna Medic Healers Hui, New Mexico Native American Relief Fund, Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation, and the University of California San Francisco Do No Harm Coalition. The areas of priority identified include rapid COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment supplies such as N95 masks, face shields, gloves, gowns, Tyvek suits, cots, disinfection wipes, and hand sanitizer.

Thankfully, allies like John Legend and Baobab Studios have come forward to help us amplify our work through a singalong music video from our Emmy Award-winning 2D and virtual reality project, “Crow: The Legend,” which tells a story of climate change and how the crow became black through an Indigenous lens in a 360-degree virtual setting. This is the type of allyship I love, and this type of social media partnership is crucial at this moment because it is easy for the issues facing Native people to get lost when mainstream media focus only on one location even as tribal communities are vulnerable nationwide.

We are close to $1 million in philanthropic and in-kind donations, but we still need $2 million just to reach our first round of supplies. We hope to raise $4 million over the next three months to continue to identify and support the urgent safety needs of Indian Country, connecting traditional healers, and supporting regenerative strategies. Donors can make a contribution to Return to The Heart Foundation-COVID-19 Action Fund or connect us to in-kind donations through the Return to the Heart Foundation website.

Sarah Eagle Heart is an Emmy Award-winning social justice storyteller and CEO and co-founder of Return to the Heart Foundation. She is an internationally accomplished executive with a diverse background in tribal, corporate, and nonprofit organizations. She focused her career on advocacy on behalf of Indigenous peoples rooted worldview as an Oglala Lakota raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She is an upcoming co-author for self-help/memoir “Warrior Princess Strike Back: How Lakota twins Overcome Oppression” to be published by Feminist Press in 2021. Eagle Heart is a former CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy and has raised over $20M for Native people. You can follow her on social media @ms_eagleheart. 

Return to the Heart Foundation is an Indigenous women-led intermediary grantmaking organization empowering visionary Indigenous women-led initiatives invested in healing through narrative change, civic engagement, climate justice, and restorative development. Return to the Heart Foundation has over 30 years of combined experience working with grassroots communities and is able to connect donors and funders to meaningful opportunities for significant long-term impact. Return to the Heart Foundation is fiscally sponsored by Amalgamated Bank Foundation.

Sarah Eagle Heart

Sarah Eagle Heart is an Emmy award-winning social justice storyteller, activist, media strategist, and producer focused on advocacy on behalf of Indigenous Peoples rooted worldview as an Oglala Lakota...