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’re having a lot of people perish. We’re having a lot of death, a lot of hospitalizations,” says 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 Allie Young, founder of Protect the Sacred, who says the Navajo Nation has “worked hard to flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections but is still vulnerable due to lax public health measures in nearby areas. “We have to travel to these territories where they’re not wearing masks, they’re not thinking about their neighbors who’ve been impacted,” says Young.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This is The Quarantine Report, as we go to North Dakota, which currently 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 state governments spent months downplaying the crisis, the Republican governors refusing to issue mask mandates, until just recently in North Dakota.
Over the weekend, facing rapidly spiking numbers, North Dakota’s Governor Doug Burgum finally declared a statewide mask mandate, limited indoor restaurant capacity, and shut down high school sports. The move came just a week after he said infected but asymptomatic healthcare workers should still work and treat COVID-19 patients at hospitals.
Meanwhile, the right-wing South Dakota Republican Governor Kristi Noem, a close Trump ally, who welcomed him to Mount Rushmore, continues to deny the crisis, will not issue a mask mandate. A South Dakota emergency room nurse told CNN she’s treated many patients who deny COVID-19 is making them ill, even as they’re hospitalized and die of the disease.
As COVID-19 ravages the Dakotas, we turn to look at how the rapid spread of COVID-19 is affecting Native American communities, which have already faced disproportionate infection and death rates throughout the pandemic. We’re joined by Jodi Archambault. She’s a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the former special assistant to President Obama for Native American affairs for the White House Domestic Policy Council. She is in the capital of North Dakota; she’s in Bismarck. She’s also the sister of the former chair of the Standing Rock Sioux, Dave Archambault. And in Farmington, New Mexico, we’re joined by Allie Young, a citizen of Navajo Nation, founder of Protect the Sacred.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jodi, let’s begin with you. North Dakota has the deadliest COVID death rate in the world. Can you talk about its effect on the Native American community there, of which you are a part?
JODI ARCHAMBAULT: Thank you, Amy. Sure. I would just like to say that 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.