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Photo: Jeremy Wilson/Provided

Fellow Appalachians,

In the year 2020, our society has changed significantly. 

In the span of just weeks, the entire world changed. It’s as if a light switch was flipped, and as a result, our ways of normal have been changed indefinitely. There is nothing normal about this year, but what one can say in dealing with a public health pandemic is that for Native Americans, this is not our first rodeo.

Communities in the United States differ in their opinions on following the public health guidelines around COVID-19, and the sense of entitlement for freedoms to live “normally” grows in abundance as we struggle to contain the virus and reach the needed level of cooperation. This pandemic has exposed toxic displays of political rhetoric and racist reactions. 

Aside from the historical Spanish Flu of 1918, this is the first time the entire world has changed significantly overnight from a virus, and the response differs between those who take it seriously and those who believe it is nothing more than mind control conspiracies. COVID has crippled our ways of everyday life. Everything has changed.

This brings me back to the historical reference in an earlier dispatch of what has happened to Natives in America, and how the arrival of Europeans brought with them a plethora of diseases and viruses that wiped out a very large population of tribes across the Country. From smallpox from blankets, to the bubonic plague, to influenza and several other versions of sickness, Native Americans have historically been a victim of public health pandemics that were not a result of their own doings.

Photo: Jeremy Wilson/Provided

Native Americans were forced out of their aboriginal territories and removed to various areas that were labeled “reservations.” The initial design of reservations was to cause extinctions because the Europeans believed Native Americans would not be able to survive within their new societies.

My home of Cherokee in Appalachian North Carolina is not truly a reservation, as it is called the Qualla Boundary – a parcel of territory that was purchased by William Thomas. Thomas became the first white Principal Chief of the Eastern Band, as he was accepted by the persuasion of his adopted father and former Chief, Yonaguska. He was able to represent the Cherokees on Capitol Hill and establish the Qualla Boundary and the new territory for the EBCI. 

Moving forward to today and the effects of COVID, our tribe shut down and closed off all of the entrances onto the Boundary in March. The only people allowed in were enrolled members, their spouses and workers of tribal entities that had IDs. When we shutdown the borders, we also sent home the tribal workforce and closed our casino, which meant we had zero revenue coming in, and we relied on our cash reserves from gaming to continue to keep our members employed, paid and able to stay safely at home.

Photo: Jeremy Wilson/Provided

When the decision was made to lessen restrictions and reopen the casino at limited capacity, we began allowing non-enrolled people to come back onto the Boundary and go gamble so we could have some revenue coming back in. With the border closer also came the problem of being able to keep produce and products in stock at our only grocery stores, so we made the decision to limit access to the non-enrolled public to certain stores and businesses so we could accommodate the needs of our people first. With these decisions came countless bashings and ugly showcasings of emotion and racist comments from non-enrolled people. 

Just as we were treated back in the 1800s on our own land, we have seen equal negative treatment on our own land today. While this is our territory and these are our businesses, there is still a very strong sense of entitlement from outsiders who cannot respect our needs to protect our people. While times have certainly changed since the days of Removal, certain patterns of behavior during times like this pandemic have not.

Photo: Jeremy Wilson/Provided

Today, we have lost 3 people to COVID-19 and have had periods of clustered cases and community spread, but we have been able to adapt to the recommended public health guidelines by having consistent leadership from Tribal Government and our Public Health Divisions, and we have done a great job of flattening the curve. With the anticipation of a second wave in the fall, we are keeping our strategies consistent and continuing to prepare if the worst is yet to come.

While this is not our first public health crisis, or our first time dealing with outsiders telling us how to operate on our own lands, we are still here doing what we have always done best — protecting our people and being stewards of leadership.

Masks have always been an essential part of our culture, and today, our use of masks also symbolizes our modern public health priorities. But I will ask, if you come visit Cherokee, please respect our community by wearing your mask too. Come see and learn about our culture, our traditional masks, and who we are as a people, but please, do so safely. 


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