Covid-19: A Compounding Crisis

by Elisabeth M. Eittreim, author of Teaching Empire; Native Americans, Filipinos, and US Imperial Education, 1879–1918

CNN ran a devastating though not surprising headline on Monday, May 18, 2020: “Navajo Nation surpasses New York state for the highest Covid-19 infection rate in the US.” Two months earlier, the New York City region had shut down, including life in the small suburban town where I live. Schools, businesses, and life in general was (and continues to be) quarantined, and daily news briefings counted the highest number of lives lost and rates of community transmission in the country. Only recently have analyses of nationwide statistics regarding the virus revealed the known but often ignored inequities that plague our nation, as higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death are found among African American, Latino, and other minority communities, disproportionately burdening the most oppressed in the land of the free. Perhaps some of the most ignored and neglected among us are the more than 6 million indigenous peoples living in the United States today.

Despite high rates of compliance to some of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the country, CNN reports multiple risk factors that the Navajo nation faces with the advent of COVID-19: 30-40% of households without running water, multi-generational family units, and limited numbers of grocery stores. Disproportionately high rates of disease and poverty also plague the Navajo and other Native American peoples, increasing susceptibility to the virus.

The Navajo nation’s vulnerabilities today are not indicative of history repeating itself. Today’s vulnerabilities—and those of other minority communities—are historical inequities compounded. Moments of crisis, like this 2020 pandemic, exponentially exacerbate existing inequities: inadequate access to food, health care, medicine, living wages, and safety. Many Americans like to tell themselves that they have worked hard and have thus earned their salaries, their homes, and their lifestyles. And yes, many have worked hard, although most have not been burdened by centuries of generational poverty.

Historically, disease and European then American greed—conquest, warfare, forced removal, and enforced reservation life—decimated the indigenous population of North America. Between 1492 and 1900, more than 85 percent of the population was lost. Assaults on native lives, livelihoods, and culture continued into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including through institutions that many Americans considered the great equalizer: school.

While missionaries had sought to reeducate American Indians since early contact, by the late 1800s the US government increasingly invested in schooling to resolve the so-called “Indian problem”—that posed by Native Americans who continued to insist on their autonomy despite US expansion. In 1879, the US government opened the first off-reservation Indian boarding school: the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Established in the east, far from most Native American communities, Carlisle and other schools for Indian education sought to “save the Indian” both from their presumed “backwardness” and from extinction itself. Indigenous families were largely coerced into sending their children to such schools, and too many families would never see their children alive again.

From the Carlisle Indian School’s earliest days, disease stole the lives of native children. A Cheyenne child was the first to die in January 1880. Weeks later, an Iowan child died after only three weeks at the school. Diseases like consumption, measles, tuberculosis, and trachoma plagued all Indian schools. Children died of pneumonia, meningitis, and influenza. In the almost forty years that Carlisle was open, more than two hundred student deaths were officially reported, most from disease, though the actual number is much higher, as sick children were often sent home and not counted.

Government-sponsored Indian schools continue to exist today, though their missions now celebrate indigenous heritage and diversity rather than try to squelch it. Still, education alone cannot remedy the poverty plaguing the Navajo nation and other indigenous communities. Education, however well-intended, does not guarantee that households have running water; such children and their families are acutely vulnerable to COVID-19 as they literally cannot wash away the virus.

Most Americans prefer to celebrate the promise of American democracy rather than admit its flaws. We revel in historic victories but minimize the atrocities. We elevate the stories and events of the past that show our best side but ignore those that expose our worst. Such selective storytelling about who we are impacts the policies and perspectives that we hold today. The Navajo nation’s access to running water today may seem disconnected from historic wrongs, but it is the cumulative result of centuries of disease, displacement, deceit, and denial. In fact, most non-native Americans ignore the existence of modern-day indigenous peoples. We confine native peoples to the past, dress up as pilgrims and Indians in kindergarten classroom Thanksgiving celebrations or cheer on a team mascot embodying the bravery and strength of an Indian warrior, but we do not see the plight or resolve of Native Americans today. We do not burden ourselves with the fact that almost half of Navajo households lack running water.

It is now, in times of crisis, that drastic inequities are revealed and worsened. Let us make it a time where we begin to acknowledge our sins of the past and present, where we strive toward understanding, and where we listen. It is not our job to assume that we have all of the answers, but it is our responsibility to respect and hear native voices.

Elisabeth Eittreim is a lecturer in the History Department at Rutgers University and an adjunct in the Women’s Studies Department at Georgian Court University.

Dennis Raphael Garcia and Ernie Garcia to Speak at Dole Center of Politics

Marine, Public Servant, Kansan: The Life of Ernest Garcia author Dennis Raphael Garcia and book subject Ernie Garcia will speak at the Robert J. Dole Center of Politics this Thursday, October 17, at 3:00 pm.

For Ernest “Ernie” Garcia, the American dream began in Mexico more than a hundred years ago. Ernie, raised in Kansas, became the US Senate sergeant at arms and escorted President Ronald Reagan to the podium to deliver the State of the Union address. After the president’s speech, Ernie reflected on his family’s long and arduous journey from Zacatecas to El Paso to Kansas as well as on his presence in the Capitol alongside the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court. He was certain his ancestors never imagined that their dreams would lead him to the White House.

Dennis Raphael Garcia, cousin of Ernest, is a retired attorney and teacher. Formerly a Kansan, he now lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Marine, Public Servant, Kansan: The Life of Ernest Garcia recently took first place in the biography category at the 2019 International Latino Book Awards.

The International Latino Book Awards is a major reflection that the fastest growing group in the USA has truly arrived. The Awards are now by far the largest Latino cultural Awards in the USA and with the 261 finalists this year in 95 categories, it has now honored the greatness of 2,897 authors and publishers over the past two decades. The size of the Awards is proof that books by and about Latinos are in high demand. In 2019 Latinos will purchase over $725 million in books in English and Spanish.

The 2019 Finalists for the 21st Annual International Latino Book Awards are another reflection of the growing quality of books by and about Latinos. About a third of the winners were from major U.S. and int’l publishers, a third from medium sized publishing houses, and a third were from small publishing houses or even self published. In order to handle this large number of books, the Awards had 227 judges in 2019. The judges shared how hard it was because there are now so many great books being published. Judges included librarians, educators, media professionals, leaders of national organizations, Pulitzer Prize Winners, and even elected officials. The Awards celebrates books in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Finalists are from across the USA and Puerto Rico, as well as from 18 other countries.

The Awards are produced by Latino Literacy Now, a nonprofit organization co-founded in 1997 by Edward James Olmos and Kirk Whisler. The Awards Ceremony was held September 21, 2019 in Los Angeles at the Los Angeles City College.

Los Angeles Times Features UPK’s Philippa Strum

9780700617197The Los Angeles Times highlights the Mendez v. Westminster case as Philippa Strum, UPK author of “Mendez v. Westminster: School of Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights,explores the important role Latinos play in the upcoming election. As Strum states, “In the coverage of the 2016 election cycle, you’ll hear this time and again: Latinos—immigrants and their families—are playing an important role in electing the next U.S. president. They are the largest minority group in the nation, and they are poised to make a major impact on American democracy.”