Comparing impacts of past pandemics to COVID-19 on Native American reservations

Published: May. 18, 2020 at 7:01 PM CDT
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Native Americans have been impacted by a variety of diseases and epidemics over the centuries that have resulted in thousands of deaths and the extinction of some tribes.

Pictographs dating back to the 18th century depict exposure to the smallpox when thousands of Native Americans died from the disease.

The lack of heath care and infrastructure on reservations continue to play a role in the vulnerability the coronavirus pandemic has on Native Americans.

Native American pictographs, created more than 200 years ago, illustrated how epidemics devastated their population.

"The Mandan people who may have had a population of 20,000 may have been reduced to about 2,000 by the time Lewis and Clark came," said Dakota Goodhouse, a native American historian and professor at United Tribes Technical College.

Goodhouse said other pandemics wiped out entire villages.

"The years were named. So 1740, 1741 was smallpox year. 1781 was smallpox year," said Goodhouse.

Now, the coronavirus, is closing in on Native Americans who struggle with health care access on reservations.

"For example, on Standing Rock we have 9,000 people here yet we only have four medical doctors and one ventilator," said Petra Harmon One Hawk, director of elderly services for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

With a culture that values family and fellowship, diseases have the ability to travel quickly.

"We have such a transited population that is moving all over the place. It really sets up our population for that virus to gain a foothold in our communities," said Harmon One Hawk.

Goodhouse said it's too early to determine what impact this year’s pandemic will have on Native populations.

"We need to let the year pass so we can reflect on this year before we can assign a name to it," said Goodhouse.

In hopes history won’t repeat itself.

Two weeks ago the Indian Health Services in Standing Rock conducted 482 coronavirus tests.

Of those, two came back positive, one is a Morton County resident.