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Surviving Pandemics Is Indigenous Resistance

Kelly Hayes talks with Morning Star Gali about Native life and death in the age of COVID-19.

Wearing surgical gloves, Carol Pouliot cradles her phone with a photo of her hugging her mom in her room at a Worcester nursing home a month ago on April 4, 2020, in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Part of the Series

Kelly Hayes talks with Morning Star Gali about Native life and death in the age of COVID-19.

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.


Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes. Today’s guest is Morning Star Gali. Morning Star is a longtime Native organizer and a member of the Ajumawi band of the Pit River Nation. She has coordinated the annual thankstaking Alcatraz gatherings for over 12 years and is a tribal water organizer for Save California Salmon. Morning Star has led large-scale direct actions throughout the state of California while also organizing Native cultural and political events around issues like climate justice, the protection of sacred sites and justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Morning Star Gali, welcome to the show.

Morning Star Gali: Thank you so much for having me on Kelly.

KH: How are you doing today, friend?

MG: You know, today is one of the better days. But hanging in there for sure.

KH: I hear that. These are stressful times and I am so grateful to have you with us today to talk about how COVID-19 is affecting Native people in the United States. This society already has a long history of killing Native people, or simply robbing us of any means of survival and leaving us for dead. Now, we are seeing our peoples cope with the threat of COVID-19, a crisis that’s effects are ramping up the intensity of the systemic violence we were already faced with. The tribal government of my own nation, the Menominee nation, has declared a state of emergency and established a curfew, in addition to asking tribal members to practice social distancing. Fortunately, my people have not yet seen any known fatalities as a result of COVID-19, but we know that’s not the case in some parts of Indian Country, and that all of our communities are incredibly vulnerable to this illness.

Visibility is always a concern in Native communities in any major crisis. As Rebecca Nagle highlighted in a recent piece in The Guardian, Native people are largely being left out of demographic data about the spread of COVID-19. Of the states that are actually tracking racial and demographic data, only about half are including Native people in their statistical breakdowns. Some are categorizing us as “other.” Can you say a bit about what we know and don’t know, in terms of how COVID-19 is impacting Native people?

MG: Sure. I’ll first start off by saying that we’re more often than not categorized as “other,” especially within institutions, where “Native American” and can be misidentified as “NA,” not applicable. We see that all the time within, institutions and schools. I know that many times. My health charts have said that I’m white or that I’m “other.” So it’s, it’s a constant issue to address. What’s not as well known within the media about native peoples, there’s just a lot of misconceptions. What we’re seeing right now is a lot of attention on hotspot areas such as Navajo Nation and South Dakota. What’s not being as reported is the structural barriers in place for our tribal and inner tribal communities. So the reality is that many of our communities are without electricity, they’re without clean drinking water. They face a lack of sanitation within their homes. Again, that is an issue of Indian Health Services being chronically underfunded. We are dealing with economic inequalities both historical and modern day impacts. Indian Health Services being chronically underfunded means that every Indian health service patient is receiving one quarter of the allocation that Medicare recipients receive.

KH: Jen Deerinwater wrote a moving op-ed for Truthout recently about Native life at the intersection of Indigenity, disability and poverty. Native people have the highest rates of disability in the US. We also have the highest levels of poverty, the least internet access, and a historically underfunded healthcare system that lacks the resources to rise to this moment. Could you say a bit about what Native communities are up against in the fight against COVID-19?

MG: The information that we are receiving is overwhelming at this point. So when we talk about impacts across Turtle Island, in terms of data, the racial distribution of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in California is that, as Native peoples, we represent 0.5 percent of the population and we are accounting 0.4 percent of the [COVID-19 related] deaths in California. This includes, at this time, 71 cases and seven deaths among American Indian and Alaska Native peoples in California. We’re accounting for 0.2 percent of the general COVID-19 cases. And again, we feel that that is under counting. Federally recognized tribes have received $0 in the CARES tribal set aside programs. So there was $8 billion that was allocated. $4.2 billion of that is supposed to go to Alaska native corporations. So the tribes are suing for that right now. Zero was allocated to unacknowledged tribes, of which includes non federally recognized tribes or what’s known as NFR. So that means that any state recognized tribes, terminated tribes, disenfranchised and disenrolled tribal members, of which we have many here in California, none of these tribes or tribal peoples are, they are not eligible for these, these set aside funds. And so we have another situation where the federal government created these barriers where they are failing in meeting their end of treaty obligations through a failed Indian healthcare system.

So we’re in a moment in Indian Country where we see reservations that are closing their borders, that tribes have instituted curfews. As we know that we are predisposed with a multitude of health issues, and we’re at an enormous disadvantage when, especially when those tribes are not able to operate Indian health service clinics and have historically been deemed ineligible to operate the clinics within their tribal territories.

So the challenges of accumulating PPE and shortages of doctors and nurses, that was already rampant, is contributing to the lack of adequate healthcare. Indian Health Service has stated itself that it cannot equitably allocate funds to meet the healthcare needs of Indians.

KH: Sixty-six tribes have declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19, but unlike federal and state declarations, tribal emergency declarations don’t necessarily help usher in resources. In some ways, our nations have been in a state of emergency since the onset of colonization, and throughout that time, our peoples have been invisibilized during national moments of crisis. The 1918 flu epidemic, also known as the Spanish Flu, which has been widely compared to COVID-19, was particularly devastating for Native people. Across the United States, fatality rates on reservations were four times higher than the national average, with entire Native families being wiped out within days of each other. The deprivation of resources and the weaponization of disease have been part of a larger genocidal process in Indian Country. Much like Black people, who are dying at very high rates of COVID-19, due to anti-Black structural racism, Native people have traditionally been viewed as disposable under white supremacy in the U.S. How do you see that history manifesting itself in this moment?

MG: We have seen the weaponization of disease used against tribal populations since times of first contact. We have been dealing with a pandemic since 527 years ago when diseases such as smallpox were transmitted to us through germ warfare, biological warfare, and that’s never really disappeared for us. So now we’re in a moment where we are collectively experiencing this. Yet the violence and terrorism has been a stark reality for us. And it’s also really scary to see that, although COVID-19 hasn’t hit some of our tribal areas that are considered rural, there are already plans to open back up, and tourists are flocking there for public recreation. So when we have issues such as campgrounds not being managed, and a lack of maintenance services, that’s putting our communities even more at risk. I’ll also add that there’s major sovereignty rights violations that are occurring. Governor Newsom here in California postponed the opening of the fishing season and is closing down beaches. That’s great for public access, but that needs to include tribal exemptions and exclusions within those orders.

KH: Shelter-in-place orders have proven especially difficult for people with mental health concerns and people living with addiction. We know that, due to intergenerational trauma and violence of poverty, Native people have high rates of addiction and mental health issues, and that adequate treatment is rarely available. My own tribal government has been sharing resources online to help people connect with 12 Step meetings remotely, and highlighting other long-distance options for people struggling with addiction, mental health issues and emotional turmoil related to this crisis. What kind of efforts to address mental health and addiction during this crisis are you seeing in Indian Country?

MG: Sure so, yes, we have high rates of addiction and mental health issues that are absolutely going untreated. Many of these issues of addiction go back to trauma and abuse. Because of the lack of funding, acute issues are treated and are prioritized and there is little funding for preventative care services, and so we have high rates that go untreated due to a lack of infrastructure in the Indian healthcare systems. But addressing the why of that is necessary, addressing the eras of termination and removal of Native peoples from their homelands, from their food systems, from the cultural support that is needed.

So in terms of what virtual support looks like at this time and the time of this pandemic, we are seeing a lot of Native wellness groups that are hosting virtual sessions such as therapy sessions. There’s Native support helplines. There’s virtual talking circles and memorials being held. But again, having access is a huge barrier that many families within rural areas do not have access to wifi. There is a lack of access to hotspots and Chromebooks for students to be able to complete coursework at this time. And again, that goes back to systemic issues. It’s important to address the root causes of the realities that we face. We have high rates of child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and food insecurities, yet it wasn’t always this way for us. When I talk about system impacted youth, I say that a hundred percent of Native youth are system impacted due to the systems of colonialism, missionization boarding schools and the reservation systems. And so that’s what’s caused the high rates of PTSD and a breakdown of our mental and physical health due to the structural and systemic violence.

KH: Mutual aid efforts have offered struggling communities a glimmer of hope during quarantine. With so many people out of work, a lot of activists and organizers have dropped whatever they were doing to organize mutual aid projects. Native young people in Chicago, with Chi-Youth Nations, are doing grocery runs for elders in our communities here, and I’ve seen other Native-led mutual aid projects popping up online. Can you tell us what some of the survival work Native people have mobilized looks like?

MG: Sure. Principles of reciprocity are our Indigenous values. So that’s how we’ve survived for the past 160 years is by maintaining our cultural life-ways. And so the values that we’re seeing, the way that it’s playing out right now, in terms of, don’t take more than you need, you know, don’t hoard essential items, prioritizing elders and youth, those are all part of our ceremonial frameworks. Protecting, you know, the land that we love. As Native peoples, we have always had organized mutual aid networks, even if we didn’t call them explicitly so.

So I was born in a movement home and organizing was just natural. It was the environment that we were raised in. And so I never really considered organizing necessarily a skill, but something that we just did and had a responsibility to, to contribute in serving our communities. And so this is how our people have historically and generationally taken care of one another, as organizing support through indigenous life-ways as a matter of survival. So as organizers and figuring out ways to provide mutual aid, especially to those in our communities that are most vulnerable at this time, we’re seeing that happening all across Indian Country. Native peoples of every agent generation are stepping up to help one another, whether that’s putting together food boxes for elders when it’s not safe for them to go shopping, to sewing masks for one another, working through tribal networks on emergency responses, and how to support disabled populations. As Native peoples taking care of one another, you know, that that is our values. And so naturally we’re organizers. We have these collective experiences, of how to look after one another of how to look after our communities. It is because of our traditional and cultural life-ways. That’s what got us through. We’re seeing at this time that individualism doesn’t work for any of us. That capitalism is failing and doesn’t work for our survival. And so the conversations of Medicare for All, even the stimulus checks, you know, we are seeing that collective wellbeing is what works best.

KH: In your own work, I know you have made a mission of highlighting the disproportionate impact of the criminal injustice system on Native people. As most of our listeners know, COVID-19 is spreading at a disastrous rate through jails, prisons and detention centers around the country. What can you tell our listeners about the carceral violence that Native people were already experiencing, prior to COVID-19, and how the virus has exacerbated that violence?

MG: Sure. So I’ll start with my personal mission of highlighting the impact of the injustice system on Native peoples is very much a personal one. My father was incarcerated at San Quentin state penitentiary for seven years. While he was incarcerated, he contracted Hepatitis C, which led to a failure of his major organs, including his liver, and ultimately led to his death. And this was 25 years ago. And so I currently have immediate family members that are incarcerated, and we know that these institutions are not equipped to provide our relatives with clean water and sanitation, which is necessary to keep this virus from spreading and ultimately infecting them.

So the water and many of the nearby institutions is toxic. It has arsenic and e coli in it which exceeds state levels. Just last year in 2019 there were lawsuits as incarcerated peoples were contracting Legionnaires’ disease from toxic drinking water, and Legionnaires’ disease can lead to increased cases of pneumonia. So these are human rights violations that are occurring. And when combined with the issues, the health issues that were mentioned earlier, this is continued violence against Native peoples. We are currently working on a compassionate release for a California Native elder who’s in his late sixties and he served 35 years now in another state, and his tribal leadership supports this release and wants him home with his family. He can’t walk more than 10 steps at this time without being winded and his family is pleading for his release, where he has received a life sentence.

We are in a moment where we see Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen that have or will be receiving releases due to COVID-19, yet our political prisoners, such as Red Fawn and Leonard Peltier are not. What we all just witnessed in the death of Andrea Circle Bear as the first female incarcerated person to pass [in a federal facility] is that women are birthing alone and in facilities that are much more of a risk to us. And so it’s that much more important to return to and utilize our traditional birth ways because they are central to our survival at this time.

KH: As someone who has written a great deal about state violence against Native people, I found it especially heartbreaking to see the Circle Bear family name in yet another tragic headline. The death of Sarah Lee Circle Bear in 2015 was utterly devastating. For those who aren’t familiar, Sarah Lee Circle Bear was a young, pregnant Lakota woman who died in a holding cell after pleading for medical attention. She was told by her captors to “knock it off.” Sarah’s sister-in-law Andrea died recently in federal custody, four weeks after giving birth while on a ventilator due to COVID-19. What do you think of how the media has handled Andrea’s passing?

MG: So Andrea Circle Bear lost her sister-in-law in 2015 that was also killed while in custody. Andrea lost two of her sisters months apart from each other within 2017. Every major news story has included what her charges are. So again, that goes back to the stereotyping and dehumanization of who we are as Native peoples. And so if you read the articles that are circulating within Indian Country, from her grandmother, you know, it talks about how she was a loving mother, how she wanted to return back to school, how she had all of these plans for herself and for her family. Yet due to systemic inequalities, she was serving this sentence when she should not have even been incarcerated while pregnant at this time in a pandemic.

KH: In terms of what’s being done to help Native people survive this moment, are there methods or practices that you think are working?

MG: So I see that people are being really creative in this moment and figuring out different ways to care for one another. So we’re used to facing barriers within our everyday lives, but it’s a moment where it’s not safe to visit with one another within our communities. Here in California, what’s been helpful is that there have been campaigns that acknowledge our elders as elders and differentiate between the term seniors. And so, we’re seeing messaging, instead of saying you can only be with your family at this time, because we have large extended families, numerous relatives that we could be visiting, but ensuring that the messaging is, you know, staying in your household and staying with people within your household.

And I think that’s been really difficult in this shutdown. Is that, you know, the inability to be able to visit, but again, having some sort of, you know, social media circle. Here in California, one of our friends created a quarantine dance special, virtual community of that, I think there’s over 58,000 members for it. So that’s one way of keeping us connected is that those prayers are being made through our traditional songs and dances. And keeping the people dancing is, is the way that we have kept the earth in balance and the way that we have helped to restore the earth. So, you know, I’ve seen some tribal governments that are really making an effort to care for their tribal members for their families. I think that some could be doing more, but again, that comes down to an infrastructure issue.

KH: If people are listening and want to lend support to Native people in this time of crisis, where would you direct them right now?

MG: I think that our friends in Dinéta really need our support at this time. My mother and stepfather lived there. Um, an uncle that is recovering from colon cancer. They are on curfew. They are not allowed to leave. And when they are allowed to leave, they have to drive 75 miles to go get their groceries and go get their supplies. They’re all elders. They’re all immunocompromised, and they really feel like it’s only a matter of time before COVID-19 hits their household. And that’s, that’s really difficult too, to have last conversations and to have your parents tell you, you know, “Remember that I love you. Remember that I love the kids.” Because the reality is that we don’t know. We don’t know what it’s going to take in terms of making it through. There are some great networks. There’s and the Navajo Hopi Solidarity Network. You can find them at or If they can raise $16,000, they can purchase a 4,000 gallon water truck, which would be life changing for so many families at this time. We are launching a rapid response fund that prioritizes Indigenous women, two-spirit relatives and children, and ensuring their safety at this time. So if you go to, you can find more information about that. And, you know, the reality is that we know what we need to do in taking care of our communities, but the resources are not available at this time.

The chronic underfunding of Indian Health Services within urban areas, where I live, urban tribal clinics only make up 1 percent of the IHS budget. So, you know, that’s a challenge to navigate. I know for myself and for my family when we are hours away from our tribal homeland and we don’t have access to health care services. It’s definitely one incentive in terms of sheltering in place is that we can’t afford at all to get sick at this time.

KH: Well, I am so grateful to have those opportunities to support Native folks highlighted for our listeners today, and I feel sure that there are folks hearing this right now who are going to want to do their part to help. If you all didn’t catch the names of those websites, we will have them linked in the transcript for this episode at Morning Star Gali, I want to thank you so much for joining us today.

MG: Kelly Hayes, you are amazing. Thank you so much for all that you are doing.

KH: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see in the streets.