As we close out Native American Heritage Month, we're reminded of one important symbol of the resiliency of Indian tribes and Indian people - the celebration of Thanksgiving. Almost 400 years ago, on a cold Eastern coast, the English colony of Plymouth was on the verge of starvation and ravaged by disease. Members of the Wampanoag Tribe, whose descendants today still remain, extended their generosity to the fledgling outpost by showing the colonists how to plant certain foods such as corn and potatoes. At the end of the harvest, the two celebrated what would come to be known as Thanksgiving.
Over the last 400 years, it's difficult to say and for some to admit, that this crucial survival gesture and favor has not been returned to the indigenous peoples of this continent. Every year, as this country takes time to pause and express its thanks for its bounty, 400 years later Indian tribes continue to struggle with the ramifications of this history. There are 573 federally recognized tribes, with over 2 million (and possibly as high as 5 million) members, spread out across 35 states. The ebb and flow of federal Indian policy has resulted in times of improvement and times of retrenchment in the quality of life for Indian people. This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic recession, feels like one of those times of retrenchment. According to some reporting, Indian people have a higher percentage of hospitalizations and deaths, relative to the overall population. COVID-19 outbreaks on Indian reservations can likely be attributed to the lack of access to adequate health care, housing and reliable water sources, as well as underlying health conditions, such as diabetes.
Despite these extraordinary and appalling circumstances, Indian tribes and Native people have proven to be resilient in the face of these public health and economic challenges. Even though we have had to minimize our contacts with our family and friends - foregoing important events, ceremonies, cultural practices, and get-togethers - tribal leaders remain committed to protecting our communities, our people, and our lifeways. And for that, I am very thankful and grateful.