Native Americans have not withstood pandemics and epidemics well.
It is estimated that the smallpox virus, which killed the parents and brother of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, wiped out 90 to 95 percent of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in about two centuries.
The 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic had a death rate four times higher for Native Americans than for any other ethnicity combined, according to the National Library of Medicine.
And now Native Americans are also being hit hard by the coronavirus, and booking conditions mean the disease is spreading rapidly and already limited resources could soon run out.
“Unfortunately, on top of everything that people are facing, adding this whole situation (coronavirus) will only make life much more difficult for many families on the reserve,” Jeremy Boucher, co-director of the Southwest Indian Foundation nonprofit, told CNA.
Since the Navajo Nation announced the establishment of a shelter on March 20, Boucher and the foundation have been making food deliveries to a pantry on the reserve to ensure people in quarantine or away from grocery stores have access to the food.
But the Navajo Nation spans three states – New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah – with several other reservations in the region as well. And local pantry rules limited Boucher to delivering food to McKinley County, New Mexico.
“The (Navajo) reservation itself is about the size of West Virginia, and there are maybe a total of five grocery stores on the reserve, and most of those grocery stores are close to border towns,” Boucher said.
“And so Gallup (the county seat of McKinley County) is really the central city for most of the people living on the reservation. So people sometimes drive two, two and a half, three hours to come into town for supplies. And right now they’re facing a situation where, if they’re confined to their home in quarantine for 14 days, it’s really hard to have someone in town for you and get a bunch of stuff with all of it. the limitations that occur in grocery stores, ”he said.
“So if you can’t do it, you have to send someone for you, but there is no guarantee that when you come to town you will be able to find what you need, because the stores are wiped out, ”he added.
To expand relief efforts, Boucher partnered with Patrick Mason, a member of the Osage tribe and the Knights of Columbus board of directors, to bring food to more people.
“We just knew by living here – I was born and raised here – the need is there,” Mason told CNA. “Every time something like that hits, every time an epidemic or a pandemic hits, often it’s just devastating.”
In addition to direct deaths from illnesses, Mason said, incidental suffering and death usually occurs during such crises. Many older people on the reserve live in simple, traditional hogans, lack running water and electricity, and have no means of getting supplies.
They rely on family and friends to look out for them, but they are often the first people forgotten in a crisis, Mason noted. “Not intentionally, it’s just that people are worried, and they forget to go see so and so. Often they end up suffering in multiple ways, ”he said.
When Mason learned that Boucher needed help, he worked with the Knights of Columbus as well as Life is Sacred, a pro-life Native American organization, to organize and deliver food baskets to the Acoma people, a Pueblo tribe in 90’s. miles which includes Sky City. village, the oldest permanently inhabited place in the United States.
They also consulted Lance Tanner, one of the owners of T and R Market (a family-owned grocery store that primarily serves Navajo customers), for food baskets.
Tanner, also a Knights of Columbus member, knew what staples his customers would like in a food basket, including flour, lard, potatoes, coffee, and spam, as well as toiletries and the water ; and goodies like Crackerjacks and Kool-Aid for kids.
When 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 (Knights of Columbus) trailer 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, who are one of the ancient Pueblo tribes. They are Catholic tribes. They have been Catholics for hundreds of years, ”he said.
“There are churches over there that are hundreds of years old, and they are very faithful Catholics. They were in pain and they said there were about 140 people in desperate need of food, so we made our first delivery there, ”Mason said.
When they arrived, local volunteers told them that another 60 people had called that day to look for food.
Wearing masks and gloves, Mason and the Knights and local volunteers unloaded the boxes at a centralized distribution center. Mason said they were working with local organizations that were able to deliver the boxes to families most in need.
As word spread across the area that the Knights of Columbus were organizing food baskets, “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 organized similar relief efforts with his local Knights of Columbus for the natives and vulnerable people there, and had need extra help.
“Regardless of what we did, he was doing something similar in Hawaii. I spoke to him and I said to him, ‘Well, we have to support you too.’ “
Mason said the Knights of New Mexico were able to provide a grant to the Knights of Hawaii to continue their efforts for another two weeks.
“Caring for our kūpuna (elders) has always been a core value for the people of Hawaii,” the Knights of the Diocese of Honolulu said in a statement to CNA.
“With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mandatory state quarantine that followed, many of our kūpuna have been forced to stay in their homes without regular access to their normal means of acquiring food. and other essentials. In fact, even many regular pantries, on which many kūpuna depend, have been completely closed for the safety of their volunteers, ”they said.
“Several Knights of Columbus from the Diocese of Honolulu, with the announcement of the quarantine and its inevitable effects on vulnerable people, stepped in and started their own personal initiatives to help the kūpuna and other vulnerable people in their community. “, says the press release. added.
Like the Knights of New Mexico, the Knights of Hawaii have been delivering food for two weeks and other essentials to the elderly and vulnerable – and so far they have helped about 5,000 people in their efforts.
Mason said his group of Knights have enough funds to continue their own relief efforts in New Mexico for another two weeks, but he hopes they can get more support to keep them going even longer.
“We want to get the word out, because really everyone is in pain right now,” he said. “But I think sometimes … these people from the peripheries are sometimes the most forgotten and the most in pain. An 80-year-old grandmother living alone an hour from the closest person is one of the first people to be forgotten, ”he said.
In a statement, the Gallup Knights of Columbus said that although it has been a long Lent for everyone, “by staying together the light of Easter will be on us, and together we will sing the song. No Nobis and Te Deum as the mists of darkness dissipate.