Sovereignty and safety concerns front of mind for Indigenous communities warding off COVID-19

An aerial view of the islands of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. The islands have been closed to non-residents since March 23. Photo: Kenneth Lawrence/Shutterstock
Published June 15, 2020

Prayers over Keeyask

On May 22, freezing rain pelts down on northern Manitoba’s Provincial Road 280, the north access road to the site of the Keeyask hydro project. About 20 people are gathered there, keeping about two metres apart, at a blockade meant to keep workers from entering the site.

Among those gathered is Bishop Larry Beardy, suffragan bishop of Northern Manitoba Area Mission of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, reached by the Anglican Journal by phone.

“The main issue is COVID-19,” says Beardy. “In…all the First Nations and towns in northern Manitoba, there are no cases. And what [Manitoba] Hydro is trying to do is bring in workers—international workers—into the site. People that have been in other countries, and also the major pandemic centres like the United States.”

Four Manitoba First Nations are partners in the Keeyask hydroelectric dam construction project. The blockade was erected by Tataskweyak Cree Nation community members in response to a scheduled shift change on May 19. The shift change was meant to replace the 600 workers who had been on the site since March with around 1,000 others. According to the CBC, those 1,000 workers would include workers from Canada and the United States.

An injunction issued by the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench served Wednesday, May 20, ordered that the blockade be removed and Hydro be granted access to the construction site. When the RCMP delivered the injunction, Chief Doreen Spence of Tataskweyak Cree Nation “destroyed the injunction paper,” says Beardy. “Ripped it up.”

Despite this strong statement, Beardy says relations with the RCMP have been fairly smooth at the blockade site.

“It’s a temporary 10-day court injunction. So they have to kind of resolve the blockade within 10 days—the RCMP implied they would be back by then. But the RCMP put out a statement, they said they want a consultation process and also a peaceful outcome.” The RCMP have also participated in Beardy’s prayer services, where they are prayed for, as well.

“What the RCMP are told by the elders, when the treaty was signed in 1908, the government told our people, the RCMP are here to protect us, not to throw us in jail. So that’s a message the RCMP have heard from the elders, and they must keep that treaty promise to the people.”

Because the provincial highway is on reserve land, Beardy says, “basically what the leadership are implying is that provincial law does not apply on First Nation territory. So that might be a legal battle.”

For communities who have so far been able to stave off the spread of COVID-19, Beardy says, minimizing the potential for bringing the virus to the area is of the utmost importance. “[An outbreak] would be devastating. We don’t have the facilities even to take in quarantine. Yesterday is the first time I had a bottle of sanitizer in my hand. There hasn’t been anything like that in the community. The health facilities are also inadequate. So you bring in the COVID-19 in the area, it’ll just devastate the population.”

Beardy has visited the site several times to do prayers and blessings, and provide a ministry of presence. “[The] Rev. Martha Spence and [the] Rev. Elizabeth Beardy, who is my wife, we said prayers for the people right at the site. And then we blessed the site with oil, and signed the sign of the cross with my bishop’s staff,” he says.

“I strongly believe God is in charge of everything here. We share scripture, and God is speaking with us.”

Beardy says he is grateful for the support from across the church. There has also been support from other organizations like Manitoba Building Trades and Amnesty International.

“I’ve been in contact with Archbishop Mark. We’ve been talking, and I know people are praying, praying for us. Because something like this, it reoccurs across the country. This is not the only place it’s happening where people are trying to fight COVID-19 from coming into the communities or the area,” he says.

On May 25, according to a news release, Manitoba Hydro and the four Cree Nations came to an agreement to institute a new pandemic plan. “With blockades removed and the injunction no longer required, regular shipments of materials and supplies into the site will begin as soon as possible, as will a gradual increase in the number of workers on the project,” the release says. According to the statement, all incoming workers will be required to pass a COVID-19 test, and approximately 1,000 workers “will gradually return to continue construction on the project over the coming weeks.”

‘We always gather in our hearts and spirits’

For other relatively isolated Indigenous communities, the risk is posed not by workers entering the community, but non-resident tourists.

“I’ve been doing my Sunday services but without Eucharist, and it’s only with myself and my great-grandson and one other person, sometimes—there’s only been three of us, and we have a church that’s big enough to hold 200 people,” says the Rev. Lily Bell. Bell is the priest at St. John’s, Old Masset, in Haida Gwaii, the archipelago off the coast of British Columbia that is the traditional home of the Haida Nation.

There have so far been no cases of COVID-19 on the secluded islands that make up Haida Gwaii, but the Haida Nation has been stringent in its measures to prevent the virus from entering the community.

The Council of the Haida Nation declared a state of local emergency March 23, mandating physical distancing, the closure of gathering places, no non-essential travel and self-isolation for anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Travel between the islands and the mainland is usually only possible via plane or a six-hour ferry ride to Prince Rupert. As of March 23, “non-resident and leisure travel” to Haida Gwaii has not been permitted. Residents returning must self-isolate for 14 days. The council has said these restrictions will remain in place at least until the end of June.

“It’s only the ferry that’s coming here right now…. I believe that the Haida Nation has [said] that they’re going to be more careful, maybe not open up as quickly as other people,” says Bell. “They’re trying to keep everything closed, especially with the outsiders that may come. They’ve got all the camp areas and everything closed off, and the beaches.”

The provincial health officer for British Columbia, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has supported the lockdown, stating that the First Nation has the ability and the authority to implement travel restrictions, according to the CBC. There are reportedly only 12 hospital beds and two ventilators on Haida Gwaii, meaning facilities could be quickly overwhelmed if a COVID-19 outbreak were to take place in the community.

Normally at this time, Bell says, there would be lots of seasonal visitors coming to camp and visit the beach—though she notes most visitors bring their own supplies and don’t typically add much to the local economy. “[The Haida Nation] has been real strict in enforcing the rules, and I think it’s because of all the bad things that happened in the past with epidemics,” she says. Smallpox outbreaks and the 1918 Spanish flu have had devastating impacts on the nation in the past, Bell says. “One of the elders, [he’s] not living now, but his son remembered, and others remembered, that they said they were having probably three funerals a day at that time, when they had the Spanish flu. The smallpox was so bad that I believe that there probably wasn’t even time for ceremony.”

Funerals are one of the most difficult rituals to navigate under the risk of COVID-19.

“When we have a funeral, we always have a big gathering after, sharing food and so on. It’s been hard for the people,” says Bell.

In the midst of the lockdown, she says, there were three funerals in one week, though none were deaths caused by COVID-19. They were only able to hold socially distanced services for a small group of people, with only a few prayers and no meeting in the church.

Social distancing is taking a toll on the community, she says. “I think it’s mainly bothering us as a people, a Haida Nation, Haida people, that love to gather for sacred gatherings, like for when we lose a loved one, we always have sharing of food and some people do food burning and other things. But we’re always together and we give a lot of hugs—that’s really hard not to do. Even our little children, they love to hug Nani [grandmother], and everybody’s their Nani when you live in a community like here, and auntie and uncle, grandparents. So that’s hard, it’s really hard.”

Still, she says people are careful to follow the rules. “We’re trying to be careful to make sure that we keep everybody safe and healthy…. We always gather in our hearts and spirits, so even if we’re apart, we know we’re together in our hearts and prayers and spirits.”

Bell, who is 71, says she does not use much technology, but others in the community are able to live stream prayers and compline, and her great-grandson often posts her morning prayer on his Facebook page.

Bell says, “Our creator God tells us to ‘be still and know that I am God.’ And I believe that’s what’s happening now.” There are small signs of hope; she says that in the forest behind her home, it seems the birds are chirping louder than ever, that salmon have already begun appearing this year, that the water seems cleaner than ever before.

We pray that this virus will come to pass, and we’re not only thinking of Haida Gwaii, but thinking of the whole world,” Bell says. “It’s been so hard and we never, ever thought we’d see this in our time. But I know that we’re called to be prayer warriors, so we’re praying more than ever, and thinking of what’s happening. And pray that things will get better for our children and their children’s children.”

Sovereignty source of friction in South Dakota

In South Dakota, tensions between Indigenous nations and the state’s governor, Kristi Noem came to a head in May, when Noem demanded that checkpoints set up by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) be removed from state and US highways.

The checkpoints, which have been erected on highways on tribal land, are meant to help monitor and prevent the spread of COVID-19 into the reservations. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier told CNN that the checkpoints would identify “people coming from ‘hot spots’ or highly infected areas,” and ask them to go around the tribe’s land. “With the lack of resources we have medically, this is our best tool we have right now to try to prevent [the spread of COVID-19],” Frazier said. Both tribes are mandating only essential travel on and off the reservation.

In letters to the chiefs of the two communities, the governor threatened legal action if the checkpoints were not removed, and gave a deadline of 48 hours, which was not met. Noem reportedly appealed to the Trump administration, writing in a letter to the president that, “The time has come for formal federal action,” and requesting federal assistance instead of pursuing litigation. According to an NBC news report, a bipartisan group of 17 state legislators has discouraged Noem from taking legal action, saying that under the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 and a 1990s appeal court ruling, that the state does not have authority within the boundaries of a reservation.

“In my opinion, what it really comes down to is the old, old argument about white people in the west,” says the Rev. Edward Hunt, superintending presbyter for the Episcopal Church’s Pine Ridge Mission. “That it has to do with sovereignty, it has to do with government, might and power, and all that kind of stuff.”

The OST is legally allowed to prevent anyone from coming onto their land, says Hunt. “The only federal agency that’s allowed, legally, in the reservation is the FBI, and they can only come here with the permission of the tribe for an approved investigation. So [the governor] can say whatever she wants, but it’s not going to work.”

Hunt lives just outside the bounds of the Pine Ridge Reservation, in a town called Martin, S.D. With the reservation on lockdown, he is currently unable to enter, and cannot perform weddings, funerals, or any of his usual ministry. However, he says he respects the travel restrictions.

“It’s very reasonable, and I definitely respect the tribal sovereignty of the people of Pine Ridge.”

Analyses of data such as The Atlantic’s COVID Racial Data Tracker have shown that the virus is disproportionately affecting people of colour in the United States, including Indigenous communities. It was reported in May that the Navajo Nation, the largest and most populous reservation in the US, has more known COVID-19 cases per capita than any state in the country, with a total of 3,122 cases and at least 100 deaths reported.

Hunt has suspended indoor worship at Episcopal churches in the reservation, but some challenges to his ministry remain. “Wakes and funerals are such a huge part, unfortunately, of life here…. I can’t drive to a cemetery in the reservation, because my travel is not essential.” For now, lay readers are taking over burial services.

“My lay readers—I can’t say enough good about them. They are extremely brave and very, very confident, and I couldn’t do what I do without them. They are really, here, the backbone of the church, because they are the only ones that can do it. I can’t go on the reservation, so they are the only ones who are left to do that kind of work.

“But I want to keep them safe as well. So you know, burial service only, the longer committal service from the prayer book, but by no means going to a two-night wake and funeral.”

Hunt says Pine Ridge Reservation has had at least one case of COVID-19 but has managed to prevent any outbreaks. In general, he says he believes South Dakota’s low rate of cases to be a product of the lack of testing in the state.

“I think here, it’s just now getting started. So we have a long way to go.”

In the meantime, he says, the church community is in constant contact. “We’re always asking everyone’s opinion, we’re all willing to listen. No one is itching to open up the church or resume services or anything like that.”

The diocese of South Dakota has more Native American members than any other diocese in the US-based Episcopal Church, with more than half of its congregations on tribal lands.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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