Native Americans have not fared well in pandemics and epidemics.
The smallpox virus, which killed the parents and brother of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, is estimated to have wiped out 90-95% percent of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in the span of about two centuries.
The H1N1 flu epidemic of 2009 had a death rate that was four times higher for Native Americans than for any other ethnicity combined, according to the National Library of Medicine.
And now, Native Americans are being similarly hard-hit by coronavirus, and reservation conditions mean the disease spreads quickly, and already-limited resources could soon run out.
“Unfortunately, on top of everything else that people are dealing with, adding this whole (coronavirus) situation is just going to make life that much more difficult for many families on the reservation,” Jeremy Boucher, co-director of the non-profit Southwest Indian Foundation, told CNA.
Since the Navajo Nation announced a shelter in place order March 20, Boucher and the foundation have been making food deliveries to a food pantry on the reservation to ensure that those in quarantine or far away from grocery stores had access to food.
But the Navajo Nation extends into three states - New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah - with several other reservations in the area as well. And local food pantry rules limited Boucher to delivering food within McKinley County, New Mexico.
“The (Navajo) reservation itself is about the size of West Virginia, and there is maybe a total of five grocery stores on the reservation, and most of those grocery stores are close to border towns,” Boucher said.
“And so Gallup (county seat of McKinley County) is really the central town for most people living on the reservation. So people sometimes drive two, two and a half, three hours to come into town to get supplies. And right now, they're facing a situation where, if they're home-bound under quarantine for 14 days, it's really difficult to have someone come into town for you and get a bunch of stuff with all of the limitations that are happening at the grocery stores,” he said.
“So if you're not able to make it, you've got to send someone for you, but then there's no guarantee that, when you come into town, you're going to be able to find what you need, because the stores are wiped out,” he added.
To expand the relief efforts, Boucher teamed up with Patrick Mason, a member of the Osage Tribe and the Knights of Columbus board of directors, to bring food to more people.
“We knew just from living out here - I was born and raised here - the need is out there,” Mason told CNA. “Whenever something like this hits, whenever an epidemic or pandemic hit, a lot of times it's just devastating.”
Besides direct deaths from illnesses, Mason said, ancillary suffering and deaths typically occur in such crises. Many elderly people on the reservation live in simple, traditional hogans and lack running water and electricity and the ability to get themselves supplies.
They rely on family and friends to look out for them, but they’re often the first people forgotten in a crisis, Mason noted. “Not intentionally, it's just, people are concerned, and they forget to go check on so-and-so. A lot of times they end up suffering in a myriad of ways,” he said.
When Mason heard Boucher needed help, he worked with the Knights of Columbus as well as Life is Sacred, a Native American pro-life organization, to organize and deliver food baskets to the Acoma people, a Pueblo tribe 90 miles away that includes Sky City village, the oldest continuously inhabited place in the United States.
They also consulted Lance Tanner, one of the owners of T and R Market (a family-run grocery store that primarily serves Navajo clientele), for the food baskets.
Tanner, also a member of the Knights of Columbus, knew what staples his customers would like in a food basket, including flour, lard, potatoes, coffee, and spam, as well as toiletries and water; and treats like Crackerjacks and Kool-Aid for the kids.
Once assembled, Mason said the baskets - which were actually three large boxes - contained enough food to feed a family for about two weeks.
“I had a trailer (from the Knights of Columbus) and we called it the COVID-19 Relief Canteen,” Mason said. They made their first delivery during Holy Week.
“Our first delivery went to the Acoma people, which is one of the old Pueblo tribes. Those are Catholic tribes. They've been Catholic for hundreds of years,” he said.
“They have some churches there that are hundreds of years old, and they're very faithful Catholic people. They were suffering, and they said that they had about 140 people that were in desperate need of food, so we did our first delivery there,” Mason said.
When they arrived, they were told by the local volunteers that 60 more people had called in that day looking for food.
Wearing facemasks and gloves, Mason and the Knights and local volunteers unloaded the boxes at a centralized distribution center. Mason said they worked with local organizations who were able to deliver the boxes to the families most in need.
As word spread through the region that the Knights of Columbus were organizing food baskets, “then names kept coming in” of more people in need of help, Mason said.
Mason added that he also learned that another member of Life is Sacred, Dallas Carter in Hawaii, had been organizing similar relief efforts with his local Knights of Columbus for the native and vulnerable people there, and was in need of some additional help.
“Independently from what we were doing, he was doing something similar down in Hawaii. I talked to him and I said, ‘Well hey, we need to support you too.’”
Mason said the New Mexico Knights were able to provide a grant to the Hawaii Knights to keep their efforts going for two more weeks.
“Caring for our kūpuna (elders) has always been an essential value to the people of Hawaii,” the Knights from the Diocese of Honolulu said in a statement provided to CNA.
“With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent mandatory state quarantine many of our kūpuna were required to stay home without regular access to their normal means of acquiring food and other essential items. In fact even many of the regular food pantries, which many kūpuna depend on, were completely shut down for the safety of their volunteers,” they said.
“Several Knights of Columbus in the diocese of Honolulu, with the announcement of the quarantine and its inevitable effects on the vulnerable, stepped into the breach and began their own personal initiatives to help the kūpuna and other vulnerable people in their community,” the statement added.
Like the Knights in New Mexico, the Knights in Hawaii were delivering food supplies for two weeks and other necessities to the elderly and vulnerable populations - and so far have served about 5,000 people in their efforts.
Mason said his group of Knights have enough funding to keep their own relief efforts in New Mexico going for another two weeks, but he is hoping they are able to garner more support to keep it going even longer.
“We want to get the word out there, because really, everybody’s suffering right now,” he said. “But I think sometimes...those people on the peripheries are sometimes the most forgotten and the most suffering. A little old, 80-year-old grandma living by herself an hour from the closest person, is one of the first people forgotten,” he said.
In a statement, the Knights of Columbus in Gallup said that while this has felt like a long Lent for everyone, “by standing together, the light of Easter will be upon us, and together we will sing the Non Nobis and Te Deum as the mists of darkness clear.”