July 23, 2020

When the Cameras Leave Town (or Never Came in the First Place), We Are Still Here

Years ago, I worked in Arizona for a multi-Tribal coalition attempting to pass a ballot initiative that would facilitate the continuation of Indian gaming. One of my responsibilities was engaging in televised and radio debates with the political interests opposing the Tribes. A few of the counter-arguments were based on good-faith policy disagreements, but the vast majority fell into the familiar toxic mix of openly racist fear mongering, anti-Tribal government sentiment, corporate opportunism, or religious-based opposition. It was hard-fought and bare-knuckle and, towards the end, the Vote No campaigns went to scorched earth tactics and abandoned thinly-veiled racism for the undiluted version.

By the final debate, I figured I’d heard all the attacks and my counters were ready, but it turned out that I could still be surprised. Responding to the effective argument that our ballot initiative had been a collaborative effort between 18 of Arizona’s Tribal Nations and resulted from 4 years of negotiation with the Arizona Governor, the opposition stated that having 18 Tribes in the coalition was meaningless because it didn’t include Arizona’s “Romantic Tribes.” I was genuinely stumped for the first time in months. What the hell was a Romantic Tribe? How did you become a Romantic Tribe? Was there a list I was unaware of and was I perhaps a member of a Romantic Tribe (experience suggests that is unlikely)?

It turned out that this political flak had coined the term “Romantic Tribe” as a euphemism for “Real Indians” as a racist dog whistle for voters. And “Real Indians” meant Natives that still met his white person’s criteria of what Indians should be like. In this case, he referred to the Hopi and Navajo Tribes (who hadn’t yet joined the coalition, though Navajo joined soon after). He wasn’t opposing all Natives, of course, he was just opposing Natives who were no longer “Real Indians” as he reckoned it. And if the voters wanted to support Real Indians, they should vote against these other 18 Tribes who had ceased to qualify as Real in his opinion. When I pressed him to elaborate, he clarified that “Real Indians” were usually poor, had little access to running water or electricity, probably still lived in traditional housing, sold blankets or pottery for economic support, etc. And, in his mind, THIS was romantic. Natives getting a college education, starting successful businesses, building infrastructure, and successfully addressing challenges in their communities? Totally NOT romantic and, in fact, any progress or success made you less Native in his eyes. As a lifelong Arizonan friend and ally translated for me, “Lots of Arizonans love Indians, as long as they’re in museums or on postcards.”

So, what does this have to do with COVID-19 and our Foundation’s approach to the pandemic? Today there are 574 federally-recognized Tribal Nations scattered across 35 states. Tribal Nations that pre-date both the United States and individual statehood, located on reservation land that was never ceded or relinquished. Every one of them is seriously impacted by the pandemic. Like the rest of society, Tribal communities went into shutdown and schools closed. Some Tribes closed their borders. The fortunate work remotely from home, but many more face layoffs, bankruptcy, and economic and food insecurity in communities where security is already tenuous.

Some Tribes, like Navajo Nation, Hopi, White Mountain Apache, and the Pueblos, have been hard hit by COVID-19 infections, with rates among the highest in the country. Aside from the actual illness, isolated and quarantined families need food, water, and essential supplies. But even in communities who haven’t yet faced outbreaks, mitigation and isolation means families, children, and elders lack access to basic necessities without risking their health.

As Navajo Nation grappled with a growing outbreak in April and May, national and international media, who usually ignore Indian Country, wrote articles, sent journalists, discussed lack of running water and infrastructure, described decades of Indian Health Services underfunding, and always included photos of iconic red rock formations, traditional hogans, isolated picturesque desert vistas, and the most beat-up pickup truck in town. This was the “real” Indian Country that mainstream society leaps to romanticize. And it was immensely helpful, for a time. The grassroots Navajo-Hopi COVID-19 Families Relief fund raised over $6 million through GoFundMe as their cause went viral in Ireland. What garnered less attention was how that grassroots effort included Navajo and Hopi citizen volunteers who were attorneys, teachers, writers, filmmakers, activists, and community organizers. This amazing and inspiring army of volunteers from every walk of life mobilized, organized, and implemented a plan almost overnight to ensure their most vulnerable community members are provided for and they’ve served over 18,000 households and 71,000 community members. This is a logistical feat that should frankly serve as a teaching tool for many mainstream government agencies and allowed their communities to effectively social distance and help contain the virus’ spread.

But there’s a secret truth never told by mainstream media hungry for the next big story that will drive clicks, generate ad revenue, and garner awards. As amazing and newsworthy as the efforts of the Navajo and Hopi grassroots efforts continue to be, they are not unique in Indian Country, far from it.  Grassroots and community leaders across Indian Country are rising to the COVID-19 challenge to safeguard their most vulnerable citizens. The Center Pole on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, Generations Indigenous Ways on the Pine Ridge reservation, Cheyenne River Youth Project, Pueblo Relief Fund, White Mountain Apache Tribe, and many more are providing food, water, shelter, and supplies to thousands of families hunkered down in shutdown communities every week. They’re doing the hard work they’ve always done for generations, without articles and iconic photo spreads in the New York Times and Washington Post, without viral GoFundMe campaigns, and with little fanfare, support, or recognition outside their communities. But they are all literally saving their people from generational catastrophe. Again.

And here’s another secret truth. Even the worst hit Tribal Nations are only a few months into their individual pandemics. At best, a COVID-19 vaccine is many months away with no guarantee when a successful vaccine will be offered to Native communities. More Tribes will have outbreaks. Shutdowns may have to continue throughout the Winter months. And even the successful fundraising efforts of the Navajo and Hopi relief efforts have slowed dramatically. Donor fatigue and short attention spans are already reducing funding across Indian Country, which historically receives less than 1% of total philanthropic giving at the best times. The Vadon Foundation is committed to helping our partners continue their work for the duration of the crisis, but there are many other organizations out there rising to the challenge. And the cameras have already moved on, or never came at all. The next big story has to be covered. In September, people will remember that feel-good story about the viral Native GoFundMe from May and never realize that was only the first mile of a single marathon and Native people are still here fighting for their people across the country. It is often said that Native people are invisible in modern society and that’s true in some ways, but it also frames the issue as some quality inherent to us. The truth is not that we are invisible; it’s that mainstream society only sees us when it wants to and when we fit the comfortable “romantic” image society prefers. And just like the Arizona voters who chose to support Tribal Nations years ago, you also can choose to see and support Native people as we are today and not only how you imagine we should be.

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