Native Americans Protect Older Tribe Members, Traditions

02 January 2021

Native American tribes in the United States are working to protect their oldest members from the new coronavirus.

A Navajo woman, Monica Harvey, wanted to help the oldest members of her tribe get needed household goods without the risk of becoming infected with the virus. So, she started Defend Our Community, a group that sends supplies to older tribe members.

She said she got the idea from watching crowds at a Sam's Club store in the northern part of the state of Arizona. People bought up all the necessary products. Older Native Americans did not move fast enough. Harvey saw them looking sad when they reached empty places in the store.

Harvey's effort is about saving lives, but it also is about more than that. Tribal elders serve as honored links to the past and often have rare knowledge of language, history and culture.

The knowledge of elders is valuable because tribes often pass down their traditions using spoken words or by telling stories. Tribal groups are giving out protective equipment, providing meals and trying to quickly get vaccines for their oldest members.

That includes the Navajo Nation in the American Southwest, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, the Blackfeet Nation in Montana and the Mashantucket Pequot Nation in Connecticut.

Loss of elders to the virus could mean a permanent loss of important traditions for the tribes.

"When you lose an elder, you lose a part of yourself," said Harvey. She lives in Leupp, Arizona, east of the city of Flagstaff.

Harvey remembers her own grandfather explaining the stories behind Navajo songs and teaching her Navajo words from the songs. She often listened to her grandparents speaking Navajo while she went over the words quietly to herself.

Tribal treasures

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation has increased the amount of food it gives to elders. The nation has also given money to those who were struggling to pay living costs. The tribe plans to give COVID-19 vaccinations first to elders and those who work with them, along with hospital and emergency workers. Next are those whose first language is Cherokee and others considered "tribal treasures."

An effort among the Blackfeet in Montana is helping the tribe's members connect with elders who need support. Connecticut's Mashantucket Pequot Nation is providing its members with face coverings and online medical advice. They also say they are providing meals and vaccinations.

FILE - In this April 23, 2020, photo, Team Rubicon volunteer, EMT Hannah Tellier, holds a COVID-19 test in the emergency room of the Kayenta Health Center on the Navajo reservation in Kayenta, Arizona.
FILE - In this April 23, 2020, photo, Team Rubicon volunteer, EMT Hannah Tellier, holds a COVID-19 test in the emergency room of the Kayenta Health Center on the Navajo reservation in Kayenta, Arizona.

Precious libraries of knowledge

Loren Racine started a Facebook page offering help in the Blackfeet community. "Elders are like libraries. Losing one is like a library burning down," she said.

Roy Boney Jr. supervises a Cherokee language program. He said most Cherokee speakers are elders. They make up a small number of people the program trusts to teach the language. "Elders hold our history and culture but also our language. ... Our elders are precious," Boney said.

Almost half of the Cherokee who died from the coronavirus in the tribe's health services spoke Cherokee well. Boney said losing even a few speakers can be very harmful to the efforts to save the language and culture. They have special knowledge of local ways of speaking, medicine and customs, he said. "All these things we're trying to revitalize and save, they're the heart of all of it."

Mashantucket Pequot elders changed to online meetings for the gatherings of many generations where traditional stories are told. An elders council also helps to organize Pequot language game nights and Schemitzun, the annual Festival of the Green Corn.

The tribe's chief medical officer is Setu Vora. He said when his group heard about the threat of COVID-19, "we immediately started working to protect them." The tribe has no known COVID-19 deaths.

Pequot elders play an important part in the effort to recover the tribe's language, which is no longer widely spoken. Elders still remember hearing family members speak the language and can give details about words. A few of the tribe's 2,000 members are learning to speak Pequot as they research and reclaim new words, Vora said.

Honoring 'Granny'

Karen Ketcher was among 28 Cherokee Nation elders who died from the coronavirus. She was almost 71 years old and had many years of experience working for the tribe and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her knowledge was valuable, said her granddaughter, Taryn King, who is 31 years old and lives in Stilwell, Oklahoma.

"There's so much at stake when this virus hits our communities," King said. She described elders as "the glue that holds our communities together."

A co-worker, Kamisha Hair, said everyone who worked with Ketcher loved her and called her "Granny." Ketcher died in April. Relatives held a small outdoor service for her. When they returned to town, other Cherokees were standing in the streets to show their respect for her.

"Losing an elder like Granny is like losing a piece of your identity," Hair said. "It dies with them, and you can never get it back."

I'm Jill Robbins.

And I'm Armen Kassabian.

Christine Fernando and Felicia Fonseca wrote this story for the Associated Press. Jill Robbins adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

elder – n. an older person; senior member of a group

Nationn. a tribe of Native Americans or a group of Native American tribes that share the same history, traditions, or language and is under the control of its own government

precious –adj. very valuable and important

revitalizev. to make (someone or something) active, healthy, or energetic again

at stakeadj. in a position to be lost or gained

gluen. a substance used to stick things tightly together