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An Indian named Cowboy once told a lecture hall full of Frenchmen that us Natives are a postapocalyptic people. Cowboy is a Blackfoot filmmaker from the Piikani and Kainai Nations near Calgary, in the Canadian province of Alberta. And like almost every Indian I’ve met, he is on a mission to reclaim things. He even changed his last name to Smithx—a rejection of Smith, the name missionaries imposed on his family, and an ode to Malcolm X. Cowboy and I were two Natives invited to a literary festival in Paris, where they put the Indians in the auditorium. Maybe we got the big room because the French are still entranced by the myth of the noble savage, but I think, even in a crowd that included luminaries like Colson Whitehead and Michael Chabon, the Indians really did have some of the most interesting and brilliant things to say.
Although I had never heard it articulated the way Cowboy expressed it, I already knew that we are a postapocalyptic people. My dad is a recovering-alcoholic Indian artist, and parts of our family story would seem over-the-top in a Sherman Alexie novel. In our language, Secwepemcstin, the traditional way to say “good morning” is tsecwínucw-k, pronounced “chook-we-nook.” But it doesn’t mean “good morning.” It literally translates to “you survived the night.”
One time, after a night at the bar, my dad pulled a buck knife on the police in Red Lodge, Mont. The cops tased him, and the judge convicted him of a felony. About a decade later, when I was in college, I had to bail him and his long-haired Chihuahua named Angus out of a jail in Goldfield, Nev. He had been driving too fast in a vehicle that wasn’t registered in his name, leaving a trail of purple haze behind—and, well, he was also a large Native man. A few weeks ago, when the world was on lockdown, one of my cousins got shot in the chest in a drug-related altercation. He survived. When I heard about what happened, I called his mom. After we spoke, I sang one of our ancestors’ songs to myself—though not so loud that my white neighbors would hear. Then I prayed, then I cried. Who gets shot during a pandemic, anyway? Especially in Canada, where gun deaths totaled just 249 people in 2018. As Indians, I think we’ve been told that we’re supposed to be dead and gone so many times that we’ve internalized it. Some of us don’t want to be anymore. In a society built atop our graves, survival has become an act of resistance.
Through my own experience and reporting on postapocalyptic Indigenous people like me, I’ve come to believe, like Cowboy, that those who know what it means to lose our world and live might have something to lend to a broader humanity that now faces its own existential crises in the form of disease and climate change. So when this latest apocalypse, the coronavirus, hit, I picked up my notebook and recorder and contacted a few wise friends and sources across Indian Country to check Cowboy’s hypothesis.
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One of the first people I called was Representative Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo. Haaland, a Democrat, represents New Mexico’s First Congressional District and was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. She assumed office during the presidency of Donald Trump, who hung a portrait of slave owner and Indian killer Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. That portrait was stationed behind the lectern when a group of elderly Navajo code talkers, war heroes whose language formed the basis of an unbreakable code that helped the United States win World War II, were honored at the White House. (At the event, Trump also called Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has claimed Native American ancestry, “Pocahontas.”) When the pandemic struck, the White House initially recommended zero dollars in federal aid to tribes. And when Congress passed a bill that included $8 billion in relief for Indian Country, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin did not disburse the funds for six weeks. By then, reservations like the Navajo Nation had more coronavirus cases per capita than Wuhan at the height of the outbreak in China.
This was the political system into which Haaland was elected and tasked with the dual responsibilities of representing her district and her race. Amid the pandemic, Haaland has been fighting to stop Washington lawmakers from ignoring and overruling tribes. I asked the congresswoman how she approaches such a weighty responsibility. She talked about her Pueblo ancestors, who migrated to the Southwest in the 1200s and planted fields of corn, beans, and squash in the desert. Haaland grew up around grandparents who lived without running water and electricity. When they needed water, they hauled it from the only spigot in the village. And when it got dark, they went to bed. “I’m grateful that tribes have somebody who they feel like they identify with,” she said. “We have been resilient, and we have soldiered through so much—all the terrible errors of the United States government that took our land and killed us with disease and starved us and kept moving us farther and farther from our homelands.” She added, “It’s time for us to make things right. And I intend to be in that fight until I can’t be in it any longer.”
Beyond Capitol Hill, Fawn Sharp, the president of the National Congress of American Indians and of the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Wash., is already imagining what the Native fight for dignity and rights might look like after the pandemic. When I called her, it was a Friday evening. She was sitting on the reservation beside Lake Quinault, looking out at the Olympic Mountains. Right at dusk, she said, the fish started to jump in the lake.
Sharp was at her wits’ end. “I’m at the point of thinking to myself, ‘Under what circumstances would this administration actually do something to help tribal nations in the face of a pandemic?’” she said. “Is this the time that tribal nations have to file a breach of trust case [for violation of treaty rights] against the United States?”
The Quinault are no strangers to that sort of fight. In the 1970s they joined other Pacific Northwest tribes in a campaign to get the US government to recognize their treaty rights over their ancestral waters. They purposefully got themselves arrested for fishing, a right guaranteed in their treaties. Sharp learned from the leaders of those fish-ins—Indian rights legends like Joe DeLaCruz of the Quinault and Billy Frank Jr. of the Nisqually—and has become an outspoken advocate for the environment. Rising seas have forced the Quinault to relocate hundreds of residents of the village of Taholah to higher ground. Her people’s staple food, the sockeye salmon, has almost entirely disappeared. In the 1950s and ’60s, hundreds of thousands of salmon swam up the Quinault River every year. Last year, there were barely 6,500, and the tribe had to close its salmon fishery. “We had to go through a genocide, and now our relatives in the natural world are also facing a genocide, and they have no voice,” Sharp said. “There is a long-standing leadership void around climate policy, and tribal nations are uniquely poised to rise.”
On the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota, Faith Spotted Eagle, a Dakota activist and kunsi (grandmother, pronounced “koo-she”), has some ideas about what it might look like for Native people to lead such a fight. The week before I called, Spotted Eagle put a few Dakota youths to work planting gardens on the reservation. The teenagers had to dodge barking dogs to plant the corn—a gift from the Mandan and Pawnee people to the Dakota hundreds of years ago—in the yards of homes still damaged by flooding from last year’s record rainfall. One of the girls had lupus, an autoimmune disease that can leave a person vulnerable to the sun, so Grandma Faith gave her a big goofy hat to protect her skin. And one of the young men was showing leadership potential, so Spotted Eagle had her son Kipp teach him how to drive the tractor. Under her watch, the young people tilled the ground and burned the weeds, replenishing the rich, black soil that lines the banks of the Missouri River. “Mother Earth forces us—it’s not even in a loving way, it’s more like in a tough love sort of way—to appreciate what we can do for ourselves,” she said. “Mother Earth and her tough love.”
When the gardens were planted, she told the young farmers as well as the owners of these new cornfields to pray and to take care of what the earth might give them. They, like their ancestors, were now stewards of this land. Dakota were once denied their right to this soil because, according to the US government, they did not practice agriculture like “civilized” Europeans. Against this history, every stalk is a rebuttal.
This is serious stuff, but it’s not without comic relief. Spotted Eagle recalled that one Yankton resident couldn’t tell the difference between the weeds and the corn, so she just watered everything. “I figured they’d make it through it,” the woman explained to her. “They’d be tough plants.” A resilient garden for a resilient people.
One night, after speaking with Haaland, Sharp, and Spotted Eagle, I thought back to a plan that Cowboy hatched to buy Castle Calgary in Scotland and rename it mohkínstsis, which means “elbow” in his language. It’s the original Blackfoot name for Calgary, Alberta. “Inverted colonization,” that’s how he put it. “Knock down the gates and invite in our brothers and sisters.”
Then I opened my laptop and scrolled through my Facebook news feed, where I keep in touch with family and friends back on the rez and across Indian Country. In the first weeks of the pandemic, I noticed Native people posting videos of themselves dancing and praying for a sick world. The last time Native life seemed on the brink of apocalypse, at the end of the 19th century, the Indians were also dancing. They called it the Ghost Dance. It foretold a world in which the colonists disappeared, the buffalo returned, and the land was restored to the people.
That spiritual movement ended on December 29, 1890, when the United States military gunned down hundreds of Lakota ghost dancers and buried their bodies in a mass grave. A week after the massacre, L. Frank Baum, who later wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, penned an editorial in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. “Our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians,” he wrote. “Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” Then his nation called us savages and made our people into mascots for their sports franchises. Maybe they were so haunted by us and what they did to take this land that they had to forget about their crimes—to put it out of their nation’s memories and history books.
As Native people, we have endured some of the darkest chapters in history and emerged knowing who we are, where we come from, and what we stand for. We’ve inherited a vision so audacious, it terrified our oppressors. It’s a worldview that celebrates beauty, defiance, and a playful wagging of the finger at the people who tried to kill us. After the pandemic but as the climate crisis unfolds, maybe more people will understand what it means to survive and still dream, like us.
Julian Brave NoiseCatis a fellow of the Type Media Center and the vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress.