Impact of COVID-19 on Native Culture and Ceremonies

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted communities around the world, including those in Indian Country. We are watching it unfold day after day – health systems, economies and industries are in various states of unraveling, crashing or being over-run and quarantines are becoming commonplace as nations attempt to contain the “invisible enemy.” These isolation measures have been extended to churches and other places of worship to curb congregations of 10 or more people and the idea of having “packed churches” by Easter Sunday seems more like a dream than reality.

This
situation has given me pause to reflect…how will COVID-19 impact tribal
ceremonies? With more than 570 sovereign nations in the U.S., there are many
solutions and even more opinions. So, I asked several tribal members how their
community will be dealing with the fallout as we enter Spring.

I first spoke with a member of my own tribe, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. He is a childhood friend and holds a special place in our religious community. Spring is the most important ceremony of the year for us and more like a New Year’s than December 31st. Spring is the time for new life, getting out of the darkness and cold of winter to start a new cycle of planting, animals awakening and hunting.

Spring also brings the thunderstorms that help clear away the pain and sickness previously endured for a fresh beginning. Other spring and summertime ceremonies include Naming and Memorial Day services, specific songs are sung, prayers are prayed and Elders gather to ensure traditions are “done in a good way” (carried on correctly). They provide oversight and tease us with stories about our own childhood or our parents’ follies. This is a generally consistent theme throughout Indian Country, albeit different in the details.

But not this
year – not this spring and not in our community. My tribe has cancelled Spring
Dance and other tribes are evaluating this as well. The risk of “community
spread” to our Elders is just too high. Our Elders – the fluent speakers of our
language, wisdom keepers of our traditions and storytellers for our future– are
entirely too valuable to expose to this “invisible enemy.”

I also spoke with a tribal member from a ceremonial society in the Southwest, and he shared the same concerns. In his community, announcements and changes are coming daily. Their community is wrestling with ways to carry-on their cultural ceremonial responsibilities without compromising the health and safety of their members. They are brainstorming on ways to have a scaled-back version of ceremony, incorporating social distancing measures to their practices or foregoing altogether.

There is no “one size fits all” solution for tribes at this unprecedented time. But one thing is for certain: this virus has no regard for skin color or socio-economic status and can decimate entire communities – and do so quickly. Our ancestors likely never envisioned anything like ceremonies at a distance, but what’s important today is that we keep our unity and traditions alive in our hearts and minds as we await the renewal Spring always brings.

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