Help Support COVID Relief to Indigenous Communities

Indigenous wisdom has always been central to Bioneers’ mission to address real world issues practically and holistically. Over the past 30 years, we have met this commitment by featuring and amplifying the voices of Indigenous leaders to connect people from all over the world to the intersection of traditional wisdom and innovations inspired by nature. 

Bioneers Indigeneity Program Directors, Alexis Bunten (left) and Cara Romero (right)

Indigenous communities—both urban and rural—have been hit extremely hard due to unequal access to health care, lack of infrastructure, inadequate access to healthy food and water, ability to obtain essential goods, and socially-driven constraints, such as stable employment. 

Knowledge bearers are speaking out louder than ever before to turn to traditionally healthy lifestyles to increase our baseline immunities. These include eating healthy, organic, non-GMO foods, moving at least an hour a day, staying in warm connection with loved ones, and prayer. They are telling us that we must integrate these traditional lifestyle practices with modern healthcare, and access to essentials. 

At Bioneers, we worked swiftly behind the scenes and have already distributed rapid-relief COVID-19 support to our friends in the front lines, who are risking their lives to help Indigenous communities survive the latest pandemic. 

I write this piece to share what my colleagues at Bioneers and I have learned about the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities, from historical perspectives to the current reality, and to offer several ways that you can donate to these efforts. 

A Native Perspective

Native Peoples are too familiar with fatal diseases. We see COVID-19 through a lens of genocide and intergenerational trauma. When the Pilgrims first landed on America’s shores 400 years ago, they settled on top of an abandoned Wampanoag village, whose remaining tribal members had fled after a 4 year epidemic introduced by European traders. 

Personal experience with epidemics is not just in the distant past. My great grandmother died of a flu introduced to western Alaska that locals called “the great sickness,” which precipitated my grandmother being sent to an Indian Boarding school. My mother contracted TB; my brother almost died of viral meningitis, and I recently recovered from the swine flu. My story is typical for most Native families. Most of us know many people who died of preventable infections, made worse by food deserts, inadequate health care and pre-existing conditions.

Group of students participating in the Bioneers Intercultural Conversations Project

My colleagues and I have spoken to friends, family and native-led organizations from across the country and learned first-hand the impacts of COVID-19. 

Many tribes are shutting down roads in and out of reservations, and implementing additional quarantine measures. The impacts in the cities are just as bad as in rural areas. Cities are also food deserts. 

People have lost jobs, and are worried about paying bills and purchasing necessary items. There’s not enough food in food banks and pantries, and in some areas, food banks are shut down. 

Households have welcomed extended relatives, contributing to food insecurity, domestic violence, and child neglect. Some families cannot go to the grocery store at all because there are too many young children at home without enough caretakers. 

Transportation is a huge problem. There are places, especially in the Southwest, where people cannot access fresh, safe water. If a car breaks down, it’s not getting fixed because there is no financial safety net. 

Elders are dying of COVID-19. Not only is this a huge emotional loss for their families, but it’s a very grave loss for tribes overall, because elders are often among the last traditional knowledge bearers and language speakers for their communities. 

Bioneers Early Covid-19 Response in Indian Country 

When COVID-19 reached the US, a friend reached out to Bioneers co-founder, Nina Simons, with a simple question. The friend wanted to support protecting Indigenous elders, but she didn’t know where best to donate the funds. 

We realized that with a legacy of bad actors diverting well-intended financial support from reaching Indigenous communities, and with our direct knowledge of trusted organizers, efforts and community care givers, that we were in a unique position to make a difference. In Nina’s words: 

I knew how very close to the edge many Indigenous peoples live, in conditions of extreme poverty, in communities horrifically underserved by any support systems, many with no running water or electricity. I also knew how dangerous the loss of Indigenous elders would be, as so many of them are knowledge-bearers, among the few who know their native languages and stories, and wisdom keepers for their cultural traditions.

Some of what Indigenous elders know, I’ve come to understand, including Traditional Ecological Knowledge, involve ways of relating to nature that I believe all humans will need to survive and learn to thrive, as we navigate between pandemics and climate instability. 

Immediately, I reached out to my trusted colleagues who co-direct Bioneers’ Indigeneity program, Cara Romero and Alexis Bunten, and asked for their counsel and advice. I also reached out to other Indigenous friends and allies, to ask them for referrals. We came up with a preliminary list of people and organizations we knew could be trusted to serve those who need help most, which I then shared with friends, colleagues and supporters who I felt might be interested and potentially inclined to help.

The three of us went to work, grateful for the opportunity to help those in such dire need, making further phone calls to folks we know, and discerning for each of us which might be highest priority opportunities within the vast amount of need that was rapidly becoming apparent in response to the COVID-19 pandemic reaching Indian Country, both in rural and urban communities.

We were able – in a couple of short weeks – to converge our thinking into a coherent strategy, and get the funds out the door quickly to the places we’d determined were the best reflections of our discernment process.

As a result, we have already distributed significant grants and medical supplies to twenty-two individuals and partner organizations. Those recipients are making food bags and delivering them door to door. They are gathering funds for gift cards. They are securing and distributing medical supplies. They are making sure that elders have meals, and other essential supplies delivered. 

Support Covid-19 Relief To Indigenous Communities  

As part of our ongoing COVID-19 response planning, we also conducted a needs assessment survey with Native-led partner organizations, and learned: 

  • At least 75% of families are experiencing some form of food insecurity.  
  • Up to 90% of families are having difficulty accessing necessary supplies (gas, medical equipment, school equipment, safe water, etc.). 
  • Nearly half (40%) of Native youth do not have access to reliable technology to keep up with their education and connect with the world. 

Our partners have asked us to continue to organize culturally-relevant events for Native youth and their families, to take our Native Youth Leadership Program online. We asked if Native youth would be likely to join in virtual gatherings —cultural presentations, mentorship events, beading nights, and talking circles — and respondents shared an enthusiastic YES. Over 15 partners indicated that up to 25 youth and families associated with their organizations would very much want to participate. 

To this end, we are currently fundraising to provide our Indigenous networks with supplies, inspiring media and curricula featuring Native leaders and access to culturally-based virtual events. Please consider contributing to support Bioneers’ efforts.

We also invite you to directly support the following organizations who are working hard (alongside many others – this is just a selection of worthy endeavors) to address the needs in Indigenous communities: 

Intertribal Friendship House – San Francisco 

NaAh Illahee Fund – Seattle 

Seeding Sovereignty – New Mexico/Southwest 

Rez Refuge – Navajo Reservation 

Amazon Frontlines – South America

Center for Sacred Studies – Global  

In the midst of these unprecedented, unpredictable, scary and sad times, we’d like to share how good it feels to be able to assist our friends and families in need. 

These times are lonely and sometimes overwhelming, but being able to connect with each other makes a big difference. Hang in there, and we’ll get through it just as our ancestors did–no matter where our ancestors are from, whether in deep time or recently– in order for us to have this precious gift of being here and now. 

Without an in-person convening this year, we are pivoting our work toward making more media, virtual events, and learning opportunities for all of our networks.

To support Bioneers efforts on behalf of Indigenous communities as we navigate this unparalleled time together, please click here.

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