Lacy Graham
Lacy Graham of the Duckwater Child Care Center stands at a COVID-19 community-based collection site on the Duckwater Reservation in Nevada, home to the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe. Photo: Staff Sgt. Ryan Getsie / 17th Sustainment Brigade Public Affairs Section
Notes from Indian Country
Pandemics and Indian Country
Monday, November 22, 2021

When it started to become apparent that an illness known as the Coronavirus was turning into a pandemic, Lakota tribal leaders took immediate action. Harold Frazier, Chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Kevin Killer, Chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, immediately had roadblocks set up on their borders in order to check people coming on to their reservations for the virus.

A few white ranchers in South Dakota immediately complained to Gov. Kristi Noem (R) about the roadblocks, and Noem, in keeping with her virtual ignorance of the Native people residing in her state, contacted South Dakota’s Republican legislators, Senators John Thune, Mike Rounds and Congressman Dusty Johnson to get them to stop the tribal leaders from setting up roadblocks. Of course these officials knew the history of how pandemics had nearly devastated the Native populations over the years and they declined to step in on Noem’s behalf.

Epidemics like smallpox had killed thousands of South Dakota’s indigenous population at its height and in the 1930s, 40s and 50s a tuberculosis struck and thousands of indigenous people became the victims so much so that tuberculosis asylums sprung up in South Dakota and in other states. The Sioux Sanatorium in Rapid City was built in order to combat the TB invasion epidemic.

Tim Giago
Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

The greatest enemy of the indigenous people by the invaders were the different diseases for which they had no immunity. The European settlers had lived with these diseases for centuries and had built up some immunity, but the Native peoples of this continent had never experienced these diseases and so even a minor illness to the white people such as measles was fatal to many of the indigenous people.

Smallpox was probably the most devastating of these diseases. One early settler recalled riding in a boat heading up the Mississippi River and admiring the Native villages strung along the river where the people were waving at them and children by the hundred were playing. Just a few years later this same man took that same trip up the river and was shocked to see that none of these happy villages existed any longer.

Another settler recalled entering a Native village in the Great Plains in the late 1800s and finding that every citizen of that village was dead. They had all died from the smallpox epidemic.

The COVID-19 epidemic has taken its toll on Native Americans across America. The people of the Navajo Nation have lost over 1,500 of their citizens and South Dakota’s reservations also lost many of its people.

But COVID-19 wasn’t particular about which race of people it chose to attack. African Americans, Whites and Asian Americans all fell victim to this deadly disease.

We are not quite out of the woods yet. I recently lost my best friend, my nephew and a cousin to the disease.

As an elder I have taken special precautions such as wearing a mask in public and staying away from large gatherings. All we can do now is pray that the worst is over.


Contact Tim Giago at najournalist1@gmail.com

Note: Content © Tim Giago