Native Americans fight to keep traditions alive after COVID

PEARL RIVER, Mississippi, May 5 (Reuters) – One of Shemah Crosby’s fondest memories of her grandmother Lena is the time they spent together handcrafting traditional Choctaw Indian dresses, sewing elaborate appliques on colored fabrics.

When her “pokni”, the Choctaw term for grandmother, died of COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic in 2020, the 20-year-old student not only lost a beloved family member, but a wealth of knowledge about his Native American tribe, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

It was a wake-up call for Crosby, who began to take a more active role in his community, learning the tribe’s language as well as ancient practices like beadwork and clothing making. Last summer, she won the Choctaw Indian Princess Pageant, becoming her tribe’s official ambassador for the year.

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“I was really going to be the only one sitting down,” she recalled one recent afternoon as she stood in front of a large wooden cross the tribe erected on the shores of Lake Pushmataha, a reservoir on the Choctaw Reservation in Mississippi. , in memory of those who died from the virus.

“But now, because time is precious, I feel like I have to take on this role, be the teacher,” she said.

As the death toll from COVID-19 in the United States approaches one million, members of the tribe are trying to cope with the devastation caused by the virus, which quickly stabbed their community, killing dozens and leaving few. of families spared from death. .

The death toll included many Choctaw tribe elders, storytellers, musicians and artisans who were the keepers of traditions that shaped the tribe’s history and culture for centuries.

COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll among Native Americans in part due to widespread chronic illnesses in their communities and the historic underfunding of Indian health systems.

By early May, 130 Choctaw on the Mississippi reservation had succumbed to the virus, according to local health officials, a per capita death rate of 1,300 out of 100,000 residents. That’s three times higher than the state average, according to a Reuters tally of public health data. Mississippi leads the nation in deaths per capita.

Indigenous communities around the world have suffered a disproportionate negative impact from the pandemic which has laid bare longstanding inequalities and exacerbated challenges including poverty and access to healthcare, experts say.

By attacking the elderly, COVID-19 threatened the very essence of Indigenous peoples – their traditions and languages ​​of which the elders were the guardians. From Latin America to Canada, tribes moved to protect their cultural guardians as much as possible, barricading villages and prioritizing the elderly for vaccinations. Yet many died taking with them the knowledge of their people.


The Mississippi tribe is no stranger to extreme hardship.

In the early 19th century, the Choctaw tribe was the first of the Indian nations to be driven from their ancestral lands in the southeastern United States by the government.

Thousands of people died of starvation, disease and exposure to the elements during a long 805 mile journey on foot to what is now Oklahoma after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act.

Today, Oklahoma is home to the largest Choctaw community in the country, followed by Mississippi.

Anthropology student Crosby isn’t the only member of her tribe who wants to keep the tribe’s traditions alive after losing so many guardians of her culture over the past two years.

Mag Willis, 35, said the pandemic inspired her to create a Facebook group for Choctaw artisans where people could connect with artisans, watch tutorials and buy pieces such as beaded sandals, elaborate necklaces and colorful earrings.

“I think there are a lot of people (who are starting) to realize, ‘Hey, I think I need to learn,'” said Willis, who lost his grandfather, the one of the tribe’s fiddlers, due to COVID-19.

Lakeishia Wallace, 34, started learning beading after leaving the US Army more than a decade ago and struggling to find a job. The pandemic made her realize the importance of sharing skills, such as how to create intricate beadwork sets and sew ribbon skirts, traditional clothing with colorful bands sewn onto it.

While many in the community fear meeting in person, the mother-of-four recently posted a tutorial on Facebook on how to make a traditional bead necklace. Now, she says, she is working on a series of instructional videos and hopes to post them on several social platforms.

“It’s my turn to step in, my turn to acquire all this knowledge and pass it on,” she said.


It’s hard to find anyone in the close-knit Native American communities scattered across 10 counties in eastern and central Mississippi who hasn’t lost family, friends or acquaintances to the virus.

Jeremy Bell has lost many members of his extended family over the past two years and buried two of his cousins ​​on the same day.

“When you lose the top five you’re going to cry, but it got to the point where I was desensitized,” Bell said.

“I stopped counting after 30.”

Death not only upended his family life, but also crept into his work. Bell, which operates a bus transportation system on the reservation, said it has seen its drivers struggle with the loss of many longtime passengers.

“It was just overwhelming to the point that when I left, I closed the door, locked it, turned off the lights and just sat there and cried,” he said.

In the tribe’s multi-generational homes, it was difficult to implement COVID-19 mitigation measures like isolating a sick family member. Tribal members have been made even more vulnerable by the prevalence of diabetes, obesity and respiratory disease in their community.

The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines has been met with hesitation by many members of the tribe where the vaccination rate remains stubbornly low at just over 48%, which is below the national average of 66% fully vaccinated.

On the Mississippi reservation, the budding hope for a post-pandemic future cannot hide the deep scars left by the pandemic.

In his office in Pearl River, the tribe’s leader, Cyrus Ben, sits behind a wooden desk framed by two poles, with the American stars and stripes on one side and the banner of the Choctaw nation on the other. .

COVID-19 has not only resulted in loss of life, but “we’ve lost pieces of our culture,” Ben said, crying at one point during an often emotional interview.

“There’s going to be a void for a while.”

How Reuters tracked the pandemic

Over the next few days, various COVID-19 pandemic trackers will hit 1 million deaths in the United States at different times. This variation is due to how each organization counts COVID deaths. For example, Reuters includes both confirmed and probable deaths when that data is available.

The precise toll of the pandemic may never really be known. Some people who died while infected were never tested and do not appear in the data. Others, while having COVID-19, may have died for another reason, such as cancer, but were still counted. The CDC estimates that 1.1 million additional deaths have occurred since February 1, 2020, mostly from COVID. Excess mortality is the increase in the total number of deaths from all causes compared to previous years.

You can read more about the Reuters methodology for tracking COVID cases and deaths here:

You can find more information about the CDC’s excess deaths here:

(This story has been reclassified to correct misspelling in paragraph 1, 19)

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Reporting by Maria Caspani and Vanessa Johnston in Pearl River, Mississippi; Editing by Ross Colvin and Lisa Shumaker

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Nohemi M. Moore