Millions of Americans are defying public health warnings and traveling for Thanksgiving, likely exacerbating a record surge in coronavirus infections and evoking contagious disease’s central role in the colonization and genocide of the continent’s Native peoples.
Celebrations of Thanksgiving elide the key fact that the Pilgrims’ arrival to North America resulted in the eradication of local Native populations due to infectious diseases introduced by European settlers.
“The Pilgrims certainly regarded biological warfare as being God’s will, to clear the land for them,” said Jacqueline Keeler, a Portland-based journalist and citizen of the Navajo Nation, in an interview with The Real News. “I would say it’s a war that’s ongoing.”
The United States saw 2,157 deaths from COVID-19 and 170,000 new infections the day of Nov. 24. But despite the current surge in cases, over 1 million passengers passed through airport screenings on Sunday, Nov. 22, the highest number since the pandemic swept into the United States in mid-March. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned against Thanksgiving travel and said it will result in a dramatic rise in deaths and infections.
On Nov. 23, right-wing media star Charlie Kirk tweeted: “It is time to disobey ALL orders that violate our natural rights. No more curfews, lockdowns, or authoritarian measures. Disobey, resist, defy – open America!” Kirk, whose organization, Turning Point USA, is funded by wealthy right-wing donors, also falsely claimed on Twitter that lockdown measures are “very unpopular and anti-science.”
The United States has seen over 260,000 deaths and more than 12 million infections since March. Meanwhile, the resulting economic crisis continues to worsen. President Trump and his supporters have blamed the country’s recession on lockdown measures themselves rather than the inadequate national response to COVID-19 that has led to lockdown measures. A new poll found that during the pandemic about 4 in 10 Americans experienced hunger for the first time, and 37% reported skipping meals so their children could eat. At the same time, billionaires have gained nearly $1 trillion, according to a joint report by the Institute for Policy Studies, Bargaining for the Common Good, and United for Respect.
Keeler noted that far-right conspiracy theorists often evoke the language of the American Revolution, which was waged in large part so white, landowning settlers could continue to seize land controlled by Native American tribes. COVID-19 deniers, Keller explained, argue that mask mandates and limits on social gatherings are “an infringement on their liberty” in a way that recalls how settlers viewed King George III’s Proclamation of 1763, which banned the seizure of Native land west of the Appalachian Mountains.
There’s another common theme here: Both yesterday’s settlers and today’s COVID-19 deniers share a willingness to achieve their ends through insurrection. Last month, the FBI arrested 13 heavily armed militia members who were plotting to kidnap Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and violently overthrow several state governments for instituting measures to contain the coronavirus. According to the criminal complaint, “Several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor.”
Conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are so popular in part because they tap into the settler-colonial narrative central to the founding of the U.S.: “[Their fundamental goal] is to oversee the taking of the wealth from other people, and the exportation of that to their ruling class,” Keeler said.
In South Dakota, the home of nine Native American tribes, the COVID-19 infection rate is 8,282 per 100,000 people, which, if South Dakota were a country, would be higher than any other country in the world. Recent tweets by South Dakota emergency room nurse Jodi Doering went viral after she described patients dying of COVID-19 while still claiming the virus was not real: “Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real.’ And when they should be … Facetiming their families, they’re filled with anger and hatred,” Doering told CNN. Despite reaching nearly 60% testing positivity in recent days, Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has continued to oppose lockdowns and mask mandates, claiming they would hurt businesses.
For tribes like the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota, the battle for sovereignty continues amid COVID-19. They have faced strong local and federal backlash for enacting policies like checkpoints to help stop the spread of COVID-19, which has hit Native populations particularly hard: “What you see playing out in South Dakota is where tribes are taking the science seriously and the surrounding red state is not taking it seriously,” said Keeler, whose father is a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, also in South Dakota.
Four centuries after the first Thanksgiving, the tribe that first encountered the Pilgrims continues to fight for tribal sovereignty and against infectious disease. In March, the U.S. Department of the Interior moved to dissolve the Mashpee Wampanoag’s claims on their ancestral homelands—a move blocked by a federal judge in June.
“It’s somewhat ironic that on the 400th anniversary of acknowledging this point in history, we are forced to stay home and stay separate and feel that fear and uncertainty and some of the things that my ancestors were dealing with in a much more severe fashion,” Aquinnah Wampanoag Councilman Jonathan James-Perry told Time Magazine.
President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to restore the Wampanoag lands, and the strong turnout among Native American voters was instrumental in flipping key swing states like Arizona and Wisconsin. More than 50 House Democrats are calling for Biden to select Rep. Deb Haaland for Interior Secretary. She would be the first Native American cabinet official in U.S. history. For Keeler, that appointment would be a promising first step in reshaping America’s relationship with its Native people, but it’s not enough.
“What we actually need is a restructuring of our political relationship in a very fundamental way,” Keeler said. “Whether it’s tackling climate change or COVID-19, there’s more urgency than ever for the U.S. to grapple with its settler-colonial roots that prioritizes profit over people.”