Posted on Feb 17, 2021
The COVID-19 Pandemic from an Indigenous Perspective
From the florentine codex, book 12, folio 54, 1577, illustrating the smallpox outbreak among the nahua. Original in the Medicea Laurenziana Library, Florence, Italy.
When the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Americas this spring, Indigenous pictorial histories such as Lakota winter counts and Mesoamerican codices that portrayed prone bodies riddled with smallpox took on new relevance. We survived centuries of diseases introduced from other continents that wiped out an estimated 90 percent of the population following the first century of European and African contact. Indigenous peoples of the Americas are post-apocalyptic societies.
Much has been written about intergenerational trauma, but only a few researchers are exploring intergenerational resilience. While the losses faced by generations of Indigenous peoples of the Americas were unparalleled in human history, our ancestors survived and rebuilt our communities. Every living Indigenous person today is a testament to perseverance in the face of centuries of diseases. Terrifying and heartbreaking as the devastation has been, our ancestors found the strength to continue and provide us with the tools and opportunities we have today.
Indigeneity can be characterized as keen observation of the natural world and adaptability to one’s surroundings—a deep understanding and reverence for the land. A tribe, characterized by former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith as “a family of families” , is the fundamental understanding that as humans, a social species of animal, our survival depends on community, not the individual. So it is not surprising that in regions of the United States where state governments failed to effectively address the COVID-19 threat, tribal governments flew into action, whether providing food boxes or imposing curfews—whatever it took to safeguard the wellbeing of the community.
Native artists, too, moved quickly to create the simple tool best suited to protect us all from the spread of COVID-19: the humble face mask. Increasing medical studies affirm the effectiveness of masks’ ability to reduce the spread of this disease. Yet, most cloth masks do not protect the wearer, they protect others from the wearer. The mask is a symbol for caring about the wellbeing of one’s community.
Almost immediately, Native artists from coast to coast began sewing, weaving, and carving facial masks. They tailored these to reflect their tribal identity or personal tastes. Artists made masks to fit their dance regalia, whether for powwow dancing, stomp dancing, buffalo dancing, or other communal dances.
Dancing and masking are integral to healing ceremonies among Indigenous communities. No doubt, we were able to collectively take action because we had long memories of facing ghastly diseases with unknown outcomes and praying for healing. Devastated by 18th-century epidemics, Cherokees drew strength from the Booger Dance, in which outside, disease-carrying spirits were represented by dancers wearing hideous and lewd gourd masks. The communities danced through their sorrows and fears to find hope in the future.
Masks today embody beauty and humor, two tools that have helped Native people survive through the worst of times. Knowing that our ancestors endured far worse situations than what we face today gives us strength. We do not deny or diminish the very real pain and loss we face today, but we know better days will come.
America Meredith (Cherokee Nation) is an educator, author, artist, and independent curator, whose curatorial practice spans two decades. She is the publishing editor of First American Art Magazine and associate publisher at Noksi Press, a small, Cherokee-language publishing house. She serves on the board of the Jacobson House Native Art Center and the Cherokee Arts and Humanities Council. Meredith taught early Native American art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Cherokee art history at the Cherokee Humanities class, and art history at Santa Fe Community College. She earned her MFA degree from the San Francisco Art Institute and her BFA from the University of Oklahoma. She ran Ahalenia Studios, an alternative art space in Santa Fe from 2009 to 2016.
Bob Gibbons, “Planting the Seed Corn,” Tahlequah Daily Press (September 1, 2008), web, https://www.tahlequahdailypress.com/news/planting-seed-corn/article_f196993c-1da9-504b-bdbf-c1b6538b498c.html.
All photos of masks are courtesy of the artist and First American Art magazine unless otherwise noted.
Pilar Agoyo (Ohkay Owingeh/Cochiti/Kewa Pueblos), Bread Is Life, 2020, Blue Bird cotton flour sack, Swarovski crystals, rayon and grosgrain ribbons.
Anita Fields (Osage/Muscogee), All My Heroes Wear Ribbon Work, 2020, taffeta ribbons, thread, yarn, beads, brass bells, metal sequins, plastic pill pouch, photos printed on silk, embroidery thread.
Dolores Gull (Weenusk First Nation, Cree) and Faith Chookomolin (Weenusk First Nation, Cree), I See You, 2020, smoke-tanned caribou hide, beads. Photo: Faith Chookomolin
Carrie Hill (Akwesasne Mohawk), #COVIDCreation, Black ash splints, braided sweetgrass.
Lily Hope (Tlingit), Chilkat Protector Mask, 2020, Chilkat weaving with thigh-spun merino and cedar bark warp, merino yarns, tin cones.
Bill Mendoza (Oglala Lakota/Sicangu Lakota), Dentalium and Quilled Mask, 2020, quillwork, dentalium, braintanned leather.
Linda Lou Metoxen (Navajo), Still Remembering Our Sisters, 2020, fabric, elastic, metal wire.
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