Due to health and other inequalities, Indigenous communities throughout the world are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19, and what they are doing about it is the theme of this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
That day is celebrated around the world Sunday, and marks the date of the inaugural session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations at the United Nations in 1982.
"COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples’ resilience" is also the topic of a virtual event open to all on Monday.
According to the United Nations, the umbrella organization of the virtual-event organizers – the Indigenous Peoples and Development Branch, Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues – there are more than 476 million Indigenous Peoples in the world, making up more than six per cent of the global population.
"The virtual commemoration will feature an interactive panel discussion on the innovative ways Indigenous Peoples continue demonstrating resilience and strength in the face of the pandemic while confronting grave threats to their survival," according to the UN’s website.
"The aim is to highlight how the preservation and promotion of Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge and practices can be leveraged more fully during this pandemic."
When Harold Blacksmith, the cultural worker at Dakota Tiwahe Services, became aware of COVID-19 he began researching; particularly the symptoms.
"We started getting ready. We started to prepare ourselves," Blacksmith said.
"As it started to unfold – not in our community, knock on wood – but when it started happening out there I started telling my people, in doing the job I’m doing now, smudge. Aside from your hand sanitizer, start smudging."
Blacksmith added Indigenous people worldwide are sharing their information using modern day technology. Whether it’s the Indigenous people of Hawaii, New Zealand or Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, many of the plant medicines are similar.
Blacksmith said the community has been picking sage and sweetgrass for smudging, as well ground feeder that helps with the symptoms of respiratory ailments.
"We’re picking it as we speak. I just went out yesterday. We’re going to continue doing that for the month of August to make sure that we are well-stocked with those medicines," he said.
"Along with those medicines we have to educate our people why we do what we do."
A culture camp scheduled for two days at the end of August will serve that teaching goal, for example. Blacksmith will bring the medicines to approximately 40 to 60 people, gathered outdoors and observing all COVID-19 safety protocols, and teach about the uses of each plant.
"For example, mint tea — what it does for us medically, spiritually, emotionally. There are medicines out there … like bitterroot for cold ailments, and bear root – you pick that from the root of a certain tree."
There are medicines for emotional situations, such as grieving, even diabetes and heart ailments.
"These are medicines that were handed down by spiritual people from way back when," Blacksmith said.
He added COVID-19 has been a reminder not to let go of the medicine teachings.
"If that (COVID-19) didn’t happen, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about these medicines. I can guarantee that."
Regular sweats are also taking place at Sioux Valley, while respecting physical distancing, Blacksmith said.
"We go into the sweat lodge and purify ourselves," he said, adding that to help others requires taking care of yourself.
Blacksmith said elders had expressed that "something was coming."
"Lo and behold, 2020 … It’s come. It may be a while before it leaves, if it does. But I like to think the Dakota people here at Sioux Valley and the surrounding communities, whether they be of Saulteaux or of Ojibwa descent or Cree, I do believe we all need to come together and share the uses of our different medicines and that will help us through this challenge we’re all faced with," Blacksmith said.
"We just have to believe that these Indigenous medicines can help worldwide. And we have to walk that talk. I think as Indigenous people, the time has come collectively – collectively – that we need to work together. We should have already, before COVID came. But, we’re not, obviously. Today we’re starting to do that, to communicate."
That being said, Blacksmith said he wears a mask when he goes into Brandon or Virden. As someone who has been ill and faced death in the past, he sees his doctor every three weeks and gets the COVID-19 test. Masks will be worn at the culture camp.
In wearing a mask, he said that that even though, as a powwow singer and "traditional minister" he believes in Indigenous medicine and ceremony and its holistic approach of encompassing the physical, emotional and spiritual, he also works with the other side of life – modern medicine and other belief systems.