Reservations have been some of the hardest-hit communities in the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, for Native Americans, this all feels awfully familiar…the arrival of a terrible illness that kills elders while the federal government does little to stop it. But this time, tribes know what to do. Coming September 29, we’ll bring you a three-part series we’re calling Shall Furnish Medicine, tracing that devastating history from its beginnings. 


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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]

Back in March 2020, I remember sitting glued to the news, in shock to hear how a deadly sickness had crossed the ocean and was killing senior citizens right here in the U.S. Soon, the sickness spread like wildfire. I couldn’t believe that, within weeks, it struck my own circle of friends, even killing people I cared about. 

But for some people, this story of a terrifying illness crossing an ocean and arriving to kill the ones you love, wasn’t a surprise at all. For Native Americans, it felt like a terrible déjà vu. Paula Peters has been documenting this history of epidemics for her tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag and recalls how European colonizers distorted the reality of pandemics in the 17th Century.

“They’re using their religion to justify the things that happened to Indigenous people as a result of colonization. They have these really twisted values about who gets sick and who gets to live and who deserves to die.”

At first, colonizers brought smallpox with them. But as more Europeans arrived, it was cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, even the common cold. Pushing inland, moving westward, the diseases struck tribe after tribe, depopulating some communities by as much as half. 

Then along comes COVID-19. 

Hospitalizations hit tribes five times harder than other ethnic groups, the worst disparity in the country. So much history between here and there. It seems like it’s about time to connect some dots. 

So in this season of The Modern West, we’re tracing back that history from the point of view of American Indian tribes. We’ll hear memories of traditional medicines that once healed disease and how those traditions have been hard to utilize during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[The Crow woman] would take the mud from medicine springs and pack that little girl’s legs in that mud. That mud from the springs cured her and the family was just so happy.”

And how, as the U.S. expanded westward, the federal government made lots of treaty promises to “furnish medicine and advice to the sick and shall vaccinate them.” But those things never came. And when it did finally arrive in the 20th Century, the feds were stingy about doling it out, a constant reminder that not a lot had changed for Indigenous people. 

“We should understand that the colonial period in American history ended for white people in 1776. It has never ended for Native Americans. Native Americans are still colonized.”

So, in recent years, many tribes have been taking back control of their health care, taking over their federally-run clinics and putting them in the hands of the tribe to manage. So when COVID came knocking, lots of tribes were ready for the fight. Ready to make sure that history did not repeat itself. 

“We knew we didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the COVID to take over. I mean, we got to be proactive. So there was a lot of other tribes that called us and asked us how’d you do this, how to do that. And so in a way we tried to help other tribes.” 

Shall Furnish Medicine: a three-part series from The Modern West arriving in your feed September 29. Download it wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to follow The Modern West now so you can be sure not to miss it. And connect with the conversation on social media, by following us @modernwestpod.

Shall Furnish Medicine art by Zach Kennah

Blue Dot Sessions

Produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting