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Project June 28, 2021

The History of Pandemics in Indian Country

Author:

Some of the hardest-hit communities in the COVID pandemic have been those on reservations. But the arrival of a terrible illness that kills elders and that the federal government allows to go unchecked is very familiar in Indigenous communities.

In a three-part series, The Modern West podcast will explore that history from its beginnings, how pandemic after pandemic struck Indigenous communities as European colonizers pushed inland. Treaty agreements made grand promises to protect the health of Native communities. Indian Health Services opened clinics but they were severely underfunded and understaffed. The rates of diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, and drug and alcohol abuse skyrocketed. The indifference and victim blaming on the part of the federal government has since been termed medical racism.

In the last few years, many tribes have begun taking over these clinics through a 638 Contract, a federal path granting tribes more power over their programs. So, when COVID-19 arrived, a movement to claim tribal sovereignty was well underway.

This project looks at how tribes have managed the virus with testing, contact tracing, early lockdowns, and even shutting down their borders entirely. These approaches have even served as models for surrounding non-tribal communities.

Melodie Edwards was a longtime beat reporter working on the Wind River Reservation. For this project, she takes on the role of producer and editor, working with Indigenous reporters to tell the story. They’ll bring the history alive using re-enactments of historical documents by Indigenous actors.

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