The other deadly COVID prisons: Reservations and COVID-19

Navajo elder Jones Benally performs a traditional hoop dance at a festival in Germany in 2008. The people of the Navajo Nation – and other indigenous nations – have for generations fought to preserve and protect their elders and traditions. As COVID-19 deaths spike, a greater sense of urgency and responsibility to pass the knowledge spikes as well. Photo: Brent Stirton

by Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson

Two of Amerika’s most oppressive institutions directed at confining and controlling people of color in particular are the two deadliest centers of COVID-19 infections: namely prisons and AmerIndian reservations.

Some Amerikan prisons have higher infection rates than entire countries. Indeed, the largest clusters of coronavirus in the U.S. have been in prisons. But the devastation caused to First Nation peoples by the virus and lack of attention from the U.S. government is much worse. 

AmerIndians, like Blacks, who are especial targets of U.S. imprisonment, are more vulnerable to COVID due to disproportionate rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes. But not only is it causing massive loss of life, it’s threatening the very lifeways of these nations.

The Navajos, for example, who are the largest First Nation with over 300,000 members, have 22,776 confirmed COVID cases and 783 deaths as of Dec. 31, 2020. But the most vulnerable members being lost to the virus are their elders, who are the history-keepers and cultural teachers.

Siblings Jeneda and Clayson Benally pose as the punk-rock duo Sihasin. Jeneda and Clayson, along with their brother Klee were taught Diné, the traditional Navajo language, as well as culture and sciences by their father. Now, with plenty of time at home, Jones is working with his children to pass this knowledge on to the grandchildren. One of their frequent activities is going on nature walks to learn about medicinal plants. 

Clayson Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, explained the impact of these deaths. “Every time one of those elders leaves this world, it’s like a whole library, a whole beautiful chapter of our histories, of our ceremonies – all that knowledge gone. It’s not written, it’s not dictated; you’re not going to find it on the internet.”

Clayson’s own grandfather, Jones Benally, is such a figure. Estimated to be in his 90s, he is a traditional medicine man and world-renowned hoop dancer and is recognized by the state of Arizona as an Arizona Indian Living Treasure. Recognition has, however, done nothing to bring in needed protections for the Navajo people against COVID from the state.

The conditions faced by the First Nations under the pandemic mirror the genocidal conditions imposed on them by the U.S. during its campaigns to remove and exterminate them, conditions which were denounced as crimes against humanity when the German Nazis replicated them against Europeans.

Added to this is the fact that practitioners of traditional medicine like his granddaughter, Jereda Benally, haven’t been able to see patients due to a COVID lockdown that’s been in effect since Nov. 16, 2020.

Because of the extreme poverty and lack of basic resources imposed under the U.S. reservation system that confines First Nations on wasteland, there are few resources available locally to aid their struggle against the virus. The very fact that there are no nearby grocery stores compels them to visit border towns for groceries with the danger of bringing COVID back on the reservation.

Worse still is that 10 percent of Navajo reservation residents have no electricity and 40 percent have no running water, which contributes greatly to their disproportionately high infection rates and makes it especially dangerous for elders because many can’t regularly wash their hands under running water for 20 seconds.

The conditions faced by the First Nations under the pandemic mirror the genocidal conditions imposed on them by the U.S. during its campaigns to remove and exterminate them using germ warfare, like deliberately infecting them with smallpox and allowing the disease to fester among them. Conditions which were denounced as crimes against humanity when the German Nazis replicated them against Europeans.

We must recognize and stand with the First Nations against their ongoing suffering under U.S. capitalist imperialist domination and ongoing genocidal conditions.

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!

All Power to the People! 

Send our brother some love and light: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, 264847, Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 500, Carlisle IN 47838.