Coronavirus places Indian Country on pause
Summer is the season of powwows, oodles of art fairs, and traditional ceremonies. But with the spread a pandemic, everything — even courting — has come to a halt. From business to dating to ceremony, Natives are hunkered down, faces covered, as COVID-19 sweeps its way through Indian Country.
Note: This story is part of the project: "Indigenous Impacts: How Native American communities are responding to COVID-19." We invite you to view the entire project here .
On any normal day in summer, all across this North American continent Natives refer to as “Turtle Island,” Ojibwes and Choctaws and Cherokees and hundreds of other tribes are somewhere kicking up dirt at the powwow grounds. A drum group belts out harmonies into the hot air and bangs the drum, which acts as both music and signal to the folks who are lost in the distance, desperate to get to the food, vendors, and maybe a bit of shade. “Listen ... I hear the drum. It’s this way.”
The faint aroma of fry bread doused with beans and chili is another signal, at least for me, as is the clinking and clanking of a jingle dress dancer somewhere quickly making her way to the center of the arena so as not to be late for the competition with a thick cash prize. Once, as a boy, I fell in love with a jingle dress dancer, but I fell head over heels when I saw her clinking and clanking her way to the fry bread stand immediately after her dance category was done. “My god,” I thought. “Please don’t let us be related.”
Summertime powwows are insalubrious for folks with faint, pale skin. “With all the white people who come to powwows, we’d make a killing with a just sunblock stand,” my friend said to me a few years back at a New Mexico powwow on a day so damn sweltering you could’ve fried an egg on the concrete to put on the fry bread, which actually doesn’t taste that bad.
Powwows, as I’ve blurted for years now, are not office meetings about the last quarter or a small gathering in the breakroom to discuss what in god’s name to do about the boss’s brutal coffee breath. No. Powwows are celebrations of indigenous culture, cuisine, art, dance, music and, off the books, it’s a good scene for Native dating, or what we call, “snagging.” To wit:
“Did you get your snag?” a fancy dance dancer asks his pal.
“No,” says the traditional dancer. “She’s taken. I’m heartbroken. I thought she was the one.”
“Don’t sweat it, man. Love is in the air. So is the fry bread. It’s this way.”
Indeed. Natives are the smallest racial minority in our ancestral land, buoying between 1% and 2% of the entire U.S. population, which makes a powwow a fantastic moment in time to meet the love of your life and, perhaps in a few years, have a few babies, boost those numbers a bit and make it a powwow family.
But this is not a normal day and this is not a normal summer. The dirt at the powwow grounds lies untouched by any moccasin. The bang of the drum and the jingle of the dress must wait, at least a while, for the raging pandemic called COVID-19 to cease its destruction on Native bodies.
Powwow families who rely on powwow dollars are hurting, and badly. The money made at a powwow could see a family of four through to the fall, and perhaps even to Christmas with good budgeting. But there are no powwows this summer. My friend and could-be part-time model if he chose to, Ben Jacobs, is Osage and the owner of Tocabe, a Native eatery with two locations in the Denver metro area in Colorado. The Denver March Powwow, one of the largest in the U.S., is a huge money maker for Jacobs and his staff every year, but COVID cancelled it all. Not long after, he had to let go of 90% of his staff, he told me over the phone. One day, a single mother working for him had a job, a good one, too. The next day, she didn’t. As he recalled the conversation, gently informing her he had to let her go, his voice was shaken, and even if he couldn’t hear it, I certainly could.
There are no post-powwow parties or concerts either, typically known as the “49,” which is a late-night gathering of dancers, singers, artists, and all manner of Natives to meet and chat and flirt, often in street attire. Lo, there are no 2020 49s this year, which means no performances, no ticket sales, and no swag to be sold by an indigenous artist in the lobby.
There’s a whole market surrounding powwows every summer, and even into the fall, but the road leading to the powwow trail is blocked. “NO ENTRY,” which means financial woes will get even woey-er as the nights get longer, the days get colder, the stack of bills continue to stack, and the bank account continues to shrink.
In the meantime, Natives have taken to the Internet to market and sell their goods and wares, but there’s a problem: there’s already a massive black market for the sale of “Native American” this and that, and the peddlers are not Native. There are laws banning this seedy practice, but that doesn’t stop the thieving, evil counterfeiters. They, folks, are everywhere.
And when the going gets to be a little much, it’s healthy and healing to go to the ceremony, but those are all but canceled as well. There are no inipis (what white folks call “sweat lodges”) to go pray and sweat the heavy weight of daily life away, which is good and quite bad all at once. It’s good there are no ceremonies in summer 2020 because it keeps the people safe from this ferocious pestilence; COVID-19 has already taken an unmerciful toll on Indian Country, more so than any other community in the U.S., according to the numbers, but it’s also bad there are no ceremonies because Natives heal in them and with them, they find their way out of the darkness. This year, ceremonies are, like powwows, like performances and 49s, like the embrace of a new lover by the fry bread stand at sunset, on hold, and who knows for how long.
Indian Country is resilient. Natives have survived pandemics before and we will again, be it this one or even the next, because this may be the new normal – life with pandemics. “There are consequences to mass, unrestrained industrialization, and this is one of them,” my elder said recently.
And the moral of the story: buy Native. The snow and freezing temperatures are just around the corner, and perhaps so is a Native vendor or small business owner who could use the patronage. Consider it paying rent on what is still stolen land. Masks, on.
About the author
Simon Moya-Smith, 37, is an Oglala Lakota and Chicano writer and adjunct professor. His new book, “Your Spirit Animal is a Jackass,” published by the University of Minnesota Press, will be available when bookbinders can safely book-bind again. Follow him on Twitter @SimonMoyaSmith .