Marcella LeBeau, a 99-year-old World War II veteran from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, asks the 2020 presidential candidates about their support for the Remove the Stain Act, a bill to rescind the Medals of Honor for the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, on August 20, 2019. Photo: Ho-Chunk Inc

Marcella LeBeau: Vulnerable Native Americans need protection from COVID-19

Native Americans have centuries of experience with Pandemics. Before Columbus, native peoples were remarkably healthy. Native Americans shared food with all in the village and cared for each other.

Diseases were minimal in part because Native Americans lacked domestic animals that were vectors for smallpox, measles, bubonic plague, and influenza. Before Columbus, there were an estimated 18 million people in what is now the United States. With the arrival of Europeans, diseases were carried forward along trade routes (which later became the interstate highways) that wiped out 30 to 70 percent of the Native population even before settlers arrived. By 1890, the time of the Wounded Knee Massacre, our Native population had been devastated, falling to 250,000 people due to disease and warfare.

The United States sought to displace the French, British, Spanish, and Russians from their traditional trade routes. Recognizing the “inherent” right of Indian nations to self-government and sovereignty, the United States entered treaties promising peace, friendship, commerce, and protection. Indian nations reserved our original rights to sovereignty and self-determination.

In 1918, Kansas was the origin of the Spanish Influenza. American Soldiers travelling from Kansas to the frontline in Europe contributed to the spread. Congress had established Haskell Indian School in Kansas to educate and indoctrinate Native students. A young Haskell Native student and her friends served as volunteer nurses at a Washington, DC Army base. Nurse Lt. Van Wort wrote: “”everybody has the ”’Flu’ at Haskell? . . . as many as 90 people die every day here with the Flu”.” With the Spanish Flu, 50 million people died around the world, and in the United States, 675,000 died. Back then, Native people died at a rate of 4x higher than the general American population. Four hundred people died at Pine Ridge, and 200 people died at Rosebud. Native Peoples “”all over the world were especially vulnerable … not just decimated but sometimes annihilated”.”

In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that American Indians/Alaska Natives “in the 12 participating states had an H1N1 mortality rate four times higher than persons in all other racial/ethnic populations combined. The reason for the disparate death rates is unknown and needs further investigation. They might include a high prevalence of chronic health conditions (e.g., diabetes and asthma) among AI/ANs that predispose them to influenza complications. Other considerations may include poverty (e.g., poor living conditions) and delayed access to care.”

Experts predict that American Indians/Alaska Natives are more likely to die from the coronavirus than the general population. The CDC agrees that ethnic minorities and Native Americans are vulnerable populations.

In New Mexico, Native Americans make up 10% of the population but over one-third of the COVID-19 cases. The Navajo Nation is the hardest hit Indian nation with nearly 3,000 confirmed cases, but now cases are emerging in South Dakota.

Against this background, some of our South Dakota Indian nations—Cheyenne River and Oglala—have established road checkpoints on tribal roads to track the origin of potential cases. Additionally, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate have instituted quarantines for hard-hit Native communities. These public health measures are reasonable responses to the National COVID-19 Emergency.

Now Governor Noem threatens the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux Tribes with litigation if they do not remove public health checkpoints initiated on tribal reservation roads. President Trump set America’s first line of defense to the Pandemic with travel bans from Asia and Europe to the United States. Florida, Hawaii, and New York initiated travel bansand quarantines. Why is it permissible for these jurisdictions to limit travel within their territory, but not acceptable for sovereign Indian nations to do so?

My great grandfather Rain In The Face (Hunkpapa), fought at the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 (also called Greasy Grass). My grandmother was Louise Bear Face Four Bear, Hunkpapa from Standing Rock.

They fought against Custer and the 7th Calvary. They won that battle, and they won that flag. Some believe that the 7th Calvary at Wounded Knee were taking refuge for the defeat of the 7th Calvary at Greasy Grass. When they massacred the innocent, unarmed men women and children under a white flag of truce and to compound the horror of murder, the federal government awarded 20 medals of honor to the 7th Calvary soldiers for bravery. Their leader, Spotted Elk was ill with pneumonia at the time.

In my opinion, a pervasive sadness exists on the Cheyenne River Reservation, the home of many descendants of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. There has never been closure to the sad and horrible massacre where innocent, unarmed men, women, and children were massacred under a white flag of truce.”

We cry out from the top of Bear Butte, our sacred butte to support the Chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and his efforts to protect the residents of Cheyenne River. Since the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and the lifestyle changes imposed upon our population, we have health disparities and are made vulnerable to this virus. When the buffalo were eradicated and our people were left with government rations, diabetes became an epidemic in the wake of the diet change.

In light of federal and state policies, the tribal public health checkpoints are reasonable in response to the national COVID-19 public health emergency. Governor Noem should rethink her approach. While the Governor says she is seeking to protect the liberty of people passing through Indian Country, our Tribal leaders are working to save the lives of the people who live here.

As a retired World War II army nurse and former Indian Health Service Director of Nursing, I know how fragile and precious life is. Any effort we can make to save the life of others is key to all people, and prevention is our goal. The border stop is helping mitigate the spread.”

In peace,

Marcella R. LeBeau

Wigmuke Wašte Win

Marcella R. Ryan LeBeau, Wigmuke Waste Win (Pretty Rainbow Woman), is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, a Lakota of the Two Kettle Band. She is a World War II Veteran who served the United States Army Nurse Corps and is retired as the Director of Nursing from Indian Health Service, Eagle Butte, SD, after thirty-one years. She is a proud member of the member of Post #308, Eagle Butte, SD. Inquires for Marcella can be directed to Dawnee LeBeau,

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