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.

Elizabeth Warren, Settler Colonialism, and the Limits of Democratic Citizenship

by Adam Dahl, author of Empire of the People; Settler Colonialism and the Foundations of Modern Democratic Thought

In my recently published book, Empire of the People, I trace the ideological development of American democratic thought in the context of settler colonialism, a distinct form of colonialism aimed at the appropriation of native land rather than the exploitation of native labor. Specifically, it traces how the ideological disavowal of indigenous dispossession laid the foundations of American democracy, and in doing so profoundly shaped key concepts in modern democratic thought such as consent, constituent power, citizenship, social equality, popular sovereignty, and federalism. Through engagement with a complex array of authors such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John O’Sullivan, Walt Whitman, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Francis Lieber, and William Apess, I argue that norms of modern democratic legitimacy acquired their conceptual coherence and foundational logics from the erasure of settler conquest. Not only was American democratic society founded upon settler colonialism, the boundaries of democratic peoplehood and the intelligibility of “the people” as a subject of rule in American democratic thought emerged through the elimination of indigenous peoples.

Although the book is largely a historical interpretation that ends around the Reconstruction period with Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871), the recent controversy over Elizabeth Warren’s genetic test proving her Cherokee identity has led me to rethink the book’s relevance in our contemporary moment, what experts of federal Indian law often refer to as the era of self-determination. After months of harassment and the hurling of ethnic slurs from the bigot-in-chief – who often berates Warren by calling her “Pocahontas” – the Massachusetts Senator released the results of a DNA test on October 15 showing that she may have had one Native American ancestor anywhere from six to eight generations back. Indigenous peoples across North America have rightly called foul. Senator Warren’s use of DNA testing, among other things, essentializes tribal identification as a form of ethnicity and uses non-indigenous standards to define indigenous identity. The very idea of native DNA testing partakes in a long settler-colonial legacy of using genetic technologies to control and curtail indigenous citizenship.

Due to the time frame of the book, I was unable to consider the main thesis in light of more contemporary currents of democratic thought championing “cultural pluralism” and “multiculturalism” as a way of ensuring the inclusive bases of liberal democratic citizenship in the twentieth century. In David Hollinger’s vision of Postethnic America, for instance, a pluralist and multicultural democracy would foster shared citizenship in a civic nation while also affirming the right of citizens to identify with distinct racial and ethnic groups. Crucial to this vision of pluralist democratic citizenship is the ability of individuals to voluntarily self-identify with ethnic groups. Such a vision of voluntary membership combines the deep appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity with a shared sense of national identity.

Citizenship in indigenous communities, however, is determined through a complex mixture of tribal law and custom, ritual practice, kinship connections, ancestral relations, and responsibilities to the land. The liberal-multicultural ideal of citizenship as voluntary membership stands in inherent tension with this more complex understanding of indigenous citizenship. It is what allows Elizabeth Warren and millions of others filling out census forms to “self-identify” as Native American by checking a box or paying $100 for genetic screening. Proclamations of an era of indigenous self-determination notwithstanding, Warren’s announcement of her self-defined Cherokee heritage both draws from this cultural pluralist strand of thinking and in doing so reveals the settler colonial and dispossessive logics of liberal democratic citizenship in its multicultural vein.

Of course, this ideal of liberal citizenship where members of different ethnic groups voluntarily identify or dis-identify with this or that group is an understandable response to legacies of ascriptive hierarchy and civic exclusion in the United States in the form of immigration quotas, Chinese exclusion, residential segregation, forced sterilization, Japanese internment, Muslim bans, and prohibition of interracial marriage. Any democracy deserving of the name must prevent the ascription of racial and ethnic categories onto citizens without their consent so as to ensure the basic protections of equal rights and liberties.

But here one of the main points of Empire of the People might help us understand our present predicament. The politics of indigenous sovereignty and citizenship cannot be collapsed into the politics of ethnicity, race, and immigration precisely because indigeneity is a different political category than racial identity, ethnic affiliation, or migrant status. For this reason, critical indigenous theorists have warned against the “racialization” and “ethnicization” of indigenous peoples. When Indian nations are cast solely as internal, ethnic minority groups rather than as nations with a government-to-government relationship with the settler state, their ability to pursue their own sovereignty and self-determination diminishes. Where ethnic and racial groups often engage in civil rights struggles for inclusion in the constitutional architecture of liberal democracy, indigenous peoples seek to preserve their own political traditions through the protection of their status as sovereign, self-governing entities.

When we take the liberal democratic ideal of voluntary membership in identity-based groups and impute it onto indigenous peoples, there arises an inherent tension between modern democratic values and indigenous self-determination. Part of what self-determination means for indigenous peoples is not just the control of their own communal resources or the protection of cultural rights to language and land-use. Rather, it has always meant, and must continue to mean, that indigenous communities themselves must be in a position to determine their own communal self-identification, that is, their own standards of citizenship and membership.  But when we treat indigenous citizenship as membership in one among any other ethnic group – precisely as Elizabeth Warren has done – we erode the capacity of indigenous nations to define the boundaries of citizenship in their communities and thus to determine the identity of “the self” that rules in the name of self-determination. To the extent that Warren’s invocation of ethnic identity as a form of voluntary identification represents a crucial aspect of the meaning of citizenship in a multicultural cum settler society, it reveals the constitutive contradictions between contemporary liberal democratic ideals and indigenous sovereignty.

In 1953, Felix Cohen, a seminal expert on federal law, argued that the fate of American Indians indexes and indeed portends the fate of democracy in America: “It is a pity that so many Americans today think of the Indian as a romantic or comic figure in American history without contemporary significance. In fact, the Indian plays much the same role in our society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.” Cohen’s famous quip about “the miner’s canary” as a warning sign of the decline of “our democratic faith” suggests that the pursuit of indigenous rights and self-determination moves in tandem with modern liberal democracy.  As one diminishes, the other declines.

As I argue in my book, however, it is, at times, the democratic faith (and by implication the standards of liberal democratic citizenship) itself that undermines ongoing struggles for indigenous self-determination. The closing words of Empire of the People are perhaps relevant here: “Grappling with the foundational role of colonial dispossession in shaping modern democratic thought must lead to a reimagining of the democratic traditions and democratic identity. Unsettling democracy requires more than simply attaching more inclusionary frameworks of constitutional law to democratic institutions. It requires rethinking the theoretical and conceptual foundations of democratic practice in a way that critically confronts their ideological entwinement with the colonial legacies of native dispossession” (184).