Reflections On The Pandemic | Chief Hugh Akagi

Chief Hugh AkagiBy: Chief Hugh Akagi

Indigenous writer Dr. Thomas King wrote in his book The Inconvenient Indian that everybody wanted to be Indians in the 1960s—even the Indians. Being Indian, authentic, and close to the land was cool. Writer, university lecturer, former US Marine and Kahnawake Mohawk Taiaiake Alfred wrote in his book Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom about “a white fisherman or logger or factory worker complaining about the pain his family is feeling because of the disruptions globalization has caused…” He finds a case for ironic solidarity with these workers—“Looks like we’re all Indians now, heh” (p. 235). I understand Dr. Alfred’s point and the value of finding common ground, even though that logger or fisher and their families have not had to confront the generations of pain and hardship that my people have. 

The pandemic gave everyone in the world a chance to see what it’s like to be Indian, and it’s not as cool as you might think. The pandemic brought on isolation, death, restricted mobility, and alienated communities. That’s the history of being Indian. 

As for the death and ill-health resulting from the pandemic, tragic as it was, it would not have been noticed at the time of European settlement—there was far more death then. Thomas King provides an educated estimate that up to 80 percent of Indigenous people on the Eastern Seaboard of this continent died as a result of settlement. David Stannard’s book American Holocaust suggests that the same percentage applies throughout the Americas. Europeans brought new diseases for which Indigenous people had no immunity. They also brought conflict, battles, and death from violence and suicide. This is a racial and painful memory for Indians, but perhaps just another ancient reference for non-Indians studying history. Multiply the current death and suffering in this pandemic a few thousand times, and that was the experience Indians had after settlement.

From my ancestral home on Indian Point in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, I experienced the impact of the pandemic. I could no longer travel freely throughout my Territory, including in what is now the state of Maine. This right is protected by Treaties that pre-date the creation of Canada and the US. Traditional Territory for Indigenous people, recognized by pre-Confederation Treaties, includes most of what is now the Maritime Provinces of Canada.  

Indian Point in Saint Andrews is the place that USA Today readers voted the #1 tourist destination in North America. They’re right. It’s a glorious spot. It’s paradise. It’s a little less glorious since the town of Saint Andrews is using 95 per cent of Indian Point for a sewage treatment plant, the original garbage dump for the town, and a tent, trailer, and RV park for tourists. The Kiwanis Club now runs their lodge and the trailer park on sacred Passamaquoddy land. Other portions of Indigenous land have been turned into fee simple ownership. Researchers note how often Indian land has been the prime location for waste products such as sewage, garbage, toxic waste, and public works. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers in the US seems to find Indian land the perfect spot for roads, bridges, dams, lakes, and a lot of other things that don’t involve Indians. But that could all be coincidence.

When Europeans first arrived they described this continent as paradise. We’ve all heard the stories of so many cod fish in the Grand Banks that they slowed down the movement of sailing ships. Sturgeon were so big and powerful in my great grandfather’s time that two men in a canoe could spear one, and it would drag their canoe the length of a football field before tiring. For hundreds of years Europeans could wield an axe, stick a shovel in the ground, fire a gun, or put a fishing line in the water and become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Who destroys paradise?

Isolation was a theme during the pandemic. Tourists couldn’t come to Saint Andrews. The Canadian-American border was closed. People with cottages, ski chalets, camps, and hobby farms often couldn’t use their cherished property. Police checked license plates and tried to keep some areas restricted only for locals. Public health officials forcibly moved patients from full hospitals to other facilities with spare beds, sometimes without their consent or the consent of primary care givers or family members. 

Quarantine and lockdowns on reserves, passes to move off reserves, and forced resettlement are painful parts of Indigenous history. When I hear of inadequate medical care and a lack of medical supplies, I’m reminded of the Treaty obligation to provide a medicine chest to Indigenous people. The courts have ruled that a medicine chest is an historic term that means adequate medical care in keeping with the science of the day. Yet today there is far too often inadequate medical care for Indigenous people, despite a Crown, Treaty, legislative, and government obligation to provide it. Canada has an obligation to my people. Canada expelled most of my people who then had to live on reserves in squalor in the newly created United States. Canada can’t rightly complain about having to address the poor health of my people because this is a direct consequence of Canada’s actions against my people. 

Unrestricted movement was part of Indigenous history for thousands of years. A recent archaeological site near Pennfield, New Brunswick documents our 14,000-year history in our territory. During this time, many of my ancestors did the normal and natural thing—moved to better hunting and fishing grounds during particular months of the year. Seasonable and permanent settlements were voluntary and productive. Peskotomuhkati migrated to the Skutik River in the summer and some lived there permanently in what is now St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Others travelled as far east as Point Lepreau to live in summer villages there. They did so in part to hunt, fish, and gather. Generations ago, sturgeon fish, twice as tall as a person, were speared and cooked and fed dozens of people. That was paradise.

Dislocation occurred not just because settlers took over Indigenous land. It occurred when settlers built dams to power mills, grind corn, and saw lumber. The water backed up in a stagnant pond which was also the local sewage system, and a waste disposal system for industry. The dam also prevented fish from migrating upriver to spawn, through these contaminated waters. No one sees large sturgeon in our rivers anymore, and many fish populations have plummeted, or been wiped out. In Peskotomuhkati territory, New Brunswick Power is removing a 140-year-old dam and restoring the river at St. Stephen. This will return many species of fish and reverse much of the dislocation. University studies have shown that property values will increase and there will be more economic value from the living biomass in a restored river than was generated by an outdated and small power dam. In fact, the Skutik River will return to being a food factory supporting the Passamaquoddy Bay and all the life forms in it, including whales. This restoration will also support tourism. I don’t know of any tourists who come to paradise to see a power dam, but they do come for fishing, dining, and boating. They come for whale watching. There’s no such thing as dam watching. 

Many people in the pandemic were disconnected from their food supply. They had to line up at grocery stores, use hand-sanitizer, wear a mask, keep a distance, shop alone, and experience other restrictions just to eat. But at least they could obtain food. Indigenous natural food sources have been depleted and stolen for hundreds of years. Shortages are nothing new to Indians. 

Before European settlement, Indigenous people were self-sufficient. Our original supply chain was local, not global. Bring back local. Even after settlement local herring factories were self-sufficient. Global markets destroyed that. The pandemic brought globalization and long supply chains into sharp relief. 

We heard the elderly in long-term care homes banging on the windows for help while a dozen of their fellow residents were inside dying. We heard that children were suffering developmentally and emotionally because they couldn’t go to school. We heard of the mental illness resulting from mask wearing because we couldn’t see people smiling. We heard of the mental illness from isolation and loneliness among people of all ages.

At least the general population could assume some people behind masks were smiling. No one was smiling when Indigenous people were driven off their lands and on to smaller and smaller reserves—the original lockdown for Indigenous peoples. No one was smiling when children were taken forcefully from their homes, separated from their parents, and sent to residential facilities which didn’t teach and exposed children to diseases of pandemic proportions. Parents couldn’t see their children, even with a pane of glass between them. Parents were hundreds of miles away. The death rate in residential facilities was far higher than the death rate during the pandemic. The suicide rate on many reserves in some months is higher as well. Foster homes were not a remedy either. They did damage too. Canada has an obligation to recognize my Nation and deal with the mental and physical health issues on both sides of what is now the international border which were caused by Canada’s actions. 

This is a statement I made for the New Brunswick Child and Youth Advocate’s Review on Youth Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Services:

“This trail goes beyond my memory, and I am 75. Suicides have always been a ‘pandemic’ for Indigenous Peoples ever since first contact. Studies have shown that when you are not wanted, suicide becomes an option. My people have been told they are not wanted, no longer welcome in our own home by Canada. As we struggle to correct this, yet another generation is forced to deal with the consequences. There is no mask or social distancing (quite the opposite, I think) to remedy this malady. Talking and planning are also non-solutions. This solution will have to come from the heart! It’s time to roll up your sleeves Canada and we are here to help you. Abuse has always been a pandemic for my people since contact. Abuse has also been rampant among Indigenous peoples. I don’t say any of this to generate guilt. Guilt doesn’t serve a purpose—truth does.”  

The pandemic occurred during a time of the cancel culture. Some refer to the woke culture. There is a movement to tear down statues of US Civil War figures in the Southern States. Many were dastardly figures who owned slaves and did atrocious things. So did Northern generals such as Sherman and Grant—helping to invent total war terrorizing the civilian population. Those horrible deeds are part of history like the bombing of Dresden and Coventry in World War II. Horrible deeds include the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, the turning away of Jewish and Sikh refugees, the ill-treatment of Italian and German Canadians, and the persecution of both American and Canadian citizens with eastern European sounding last names including during the infamous American raids conducted by the Justice Department under A. Mitchell Palmer. 

The stories of decorated Black, Japanese, Indigenous war heroes who had fought for Canada and the US in both World Wars who came home to prejudice and even violence against them is shameful. There is also great irony in some of these events. We revere the uniform of our armed forces—but not so much if it’s a Black or Indigenous person wearing it. The internment of American and Canadian citizens and residents of Japanese origin was both unnecessary and racist. An unnecessary and ill-thought-out policy is different than racism and the remedy is different. During World War II, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt drove through areas of Hawaii with large populations of people of Japanese heritage. He did so safely in an open car. Why would people of the same national origin be a threat on the US mainland, but not closer to Japan in Hawaii? 

I don’t want dastardly historical figures to be revered, but I also don’t want to forget history or pretend horrible things didn’t happen. Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, is becoming a controversial figure. He was always controversial in Indigenous society, in large part responsible for Clearing the Plains which is the title of a book by Saskatchewan scholar James Daschuk. But nothing and no one is completely good or evil. John A. Macdonald had some positive interactions with Indigenous people for the times, but which may not stand the test of time. Some actions are both good and bad at the same time. John A. Macdonald socialized with Indigenous people and appears to have had close friends who were Indigenous. Richard Gwynn references the first Prime Minister’s friendship with Kahkewaquonaby in his book John A: The Man Who Made Us The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald Volume One: 1815-1867 (p. 155). At a time when newspapers denounced marriages between Indians and non-Indians as “improper and revolting” John A. approved of these marriages. But his tolerant and inclusive position is tempered by the fact that he felt that intermingling and marriage would “speed the process of assimilation” (p. 155). As a lawyer Macdonald defended a Mohawk client charged with murder (p. 53). As Attorney General he had a bill passed to grant land to Indians and give them citizenship and the vote. His bill was called the Gradual Civilisation Bill of 1857 and of course the land was already Indian land and Territory. However enlightened for the time or even well-meaning on some issues, this was part of a long assimilation effort that continues to this day.  

Mounted Police were the truant officers who arrested Indigenous parents for trying to keep their children. Yet, as is the case with John A. Macdonald, no one or organization is completely good or evil. Author James Daschuk also documents how, for a time, the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) were regarded as the “saviours” of the Indigenous population and then became “agents of their subjugation” (p. 127). Physicians attached to the NWMP virtually eliminated smallpox as a major cause of mortality among Indigenous people (p. 105). Among the NWMP’s original mandate was to bring some order to the west and to combat the trade in alcohol with Indigenous people—another pandemic for us.  

It is well known that the health of Indigenous peoples suffered as a result of settlement. Many of the deaths of Native people on the eastern seaboard that Thomas King cites may have been inadvertent. As in this pandemic, some Europeans might not have known they were carrying a contagious disease and wouldn’t have understood that Indigenous people had no immunity. Science had not progressed that far. But many other deaths were a result of deliberate and purposeful acts. Explorer de Soto’s travels could be described as a psychopathic and murderous rampage through thousands of miles of pastoral land in which he left a trail of death for no apparent reason. 

In what is now Canada, starvation seems to have been an official public policy to clear the plains of their natural inhabitants and relegate Indigenous people to smaller and smaller reserves. Starvation may have been a result of the purposeful destruction of the buffalo as a major food source, coupled with the vast territory and thus inability to move food to remote locations. Historians debate but the result is the same—starvation to death. There is also the story of the purposeful transmission of disease. The story of settlers handing out blankets infected with smallpox has been repeated for generations. Author James Daschuk tries to put this story to rest in his book. He recounts research showing that the legend of the smallpox blanket is apocryphal—“pure fiction” (p. 81). The fact that it may have been discussed as a public policy, or was even considered is bad enough. James Daschuk may be correct in the context of the prairies. Smallpox in blankets was discussed elsewhere and may have been used in the US. Yet there is no doubt or debate about the individual and mass killings through the history of settler and Indigenous relations.   

We continue to experience violence and death in Indigenous communities. We continue to recount stories of official policy to prevent the collection of firewood to the point that cold Indigenous people were burning their wooden furniture and parts of their homes to keep warm. Other policies enforced by Indian agents were designed to break down the capacity to harvest food in what is now the Canadian Maritimes. Breaking down access to the food supply included relocating people away from coasts and the fishery. Families were separated and relationships broken via residential schools. Without family members food harvesting slowed down. Alcohol also broke down the family structure and the ability to procure food. All these acts increased reliance on Indian agents. The male in the household couldn’t hunt when under the influence of alcohol. The mothers and grandmothers didn’t have the help of their children who were kidnapped and taken to residential facilities. Without the product of the hunt, mothers and grandmothers couldn’t make clothing, housing, and shoes in traditional ways. Without traditional food, we became more dependent on high sugar diets which harmed our health.    

Most school children learn the story of the destruction of the buffalo as a food source. Buffalo were so plentiful that Indigenous hunters left large piles of bones in what is now Regina. In fact, Regina’s original name is Wascana which means pile of bones. Afterward settlers hunted buffalo for their hides and left their carcasses to rot. That rotting animal would have fed dozens of people. Riders on the trans-continental railroad were handed rifles to shoot buffalo for fun and to pass the time. Not even their hides were used.  

In this pandemic, there have been shortages of food, and for a similar reason—a lack of planning and responsible management. There were surpluses of food in some locations, and shortages where it was needed in homeless shelters in large urban areas. Food was being thrown out and animals destroyed while people were hungry within a day’s drive. Part of the explanation lies in the unnatural way modern society produces and distributes food. This is especially true in factory farms. Milk production is a good example. There are economies of scale, as in all businesses. Milk is produced, then stored and delivered in large plastic containers for use in restaurants and institutions. Most school lunch programs and ad hoc homeless shelters need single serving cartons, or one- or two-quart containers. This is obvious. But it’s more profitable to produce the several gallon plastic bladders of milk, which have been of little use with restaurants shut down.  

The supply chain has been an issue in this pandemic. We see news stories about the Canadian government throwing out masks because they’re past their expiry date, and then having trouble replacing them. We’ve seen the US federal government and states competing to buy life-saving items offshore when they should be made locally. But when it comes to food, we can’t even move food in the right containers and amounts a few hundred miles from where it’s produced to where it’s needed.  

The tragedy of food distribution is a manifestation of detachment from the land and the food sources. Looks like we’re all Indians now, heh? When we speak of stewardship, responsibilities, and use management, those words may resonate a little more now that the entire population has experienced the dislocation in the pandemic that Indians have experienced since settlement.

I hope I have built on the coalition that Thomas King and Taiaiake Alfred have referenced. The coalition is among Indians, those who cherish Indian values and virtues, and those who suffer similar fates as Indians. In many ways this is a coalition that Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to forge before he was killed. Most people are familiar with his tireless work to improve the lives of African Americans, called Negros at the time by Dr. King, and later called Black Americans. What might be a little less well known is Dr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. Perhaps even less well known is his attempt to forge a coalition including with poor people of any background. It didn’t last, but there was a poor people’s movement. There was even a uniform—a denim suit which a few mourners wore to Robert Kennedy’s funeral. The pandemic created many more poor and underserved people. There has certainly been progress in many areas. Yet, the poor that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation was designed to help are mostly dead now. Most of the poor children that Robert Kennedy met on his 1968 tour of Appalachia are probably dead. There are still roughly the same number of poor people without health care in the US as there were when Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy tried to do something to help them. Do people who live in what is now Canada think they are immune or have it better?

Ancient history? Far away problems on reserves? Unique problems for a small demographic group? No. That coalition that Martin Luther King began building has finally come to fruition. It’s happened through neglect, hostility, fear, and hate, not the love that Dr. King was using, or even the tough compassion of Bobby Kennedy. Pulitzer Prize winning authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have explored this tragic coalition in their book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. Their book could have been written to describe a dozen or more Canadian locations, including in and near my Territory. The coalition described is tragic because more and more working- and middle-class people are being pushed into a desperate union with the unemployable whose lives are destroyed by drugs, alcohol, and loneliness. 

Kristof grew up in paradise like I did—rural Oregon. He took the bus to school. His book recounts how about “one-fourth of the kids who rode…on the bus are dead from drugs, suicide, alcohol, obesity, reckless accidents and other pathologies” (p. 8). That’s personal for him. The broad statistics are worse. Life expectancy in the richest country the world has ever seen has dropped for three years running.  More than 200,000 Americans die each year from drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and suicide. The US is 41st in child mortality, “…number 46 in Internet access, number 44 in access to clean drinking water, number 57 in personal safety and number 30 in high-school enrolment” (p. 13). The US spends more on health care than any other country in the world, but achieves about what Ecuador does. Its school system produces outcomes about the same as Uzbekistan does.

Officials from the United Nations go to Alabama to study extreme poverty. The land in which Hollywood movies and politicians say you can grow up to be anything you want has the lowest rate of social mobility among wealthy countries. People no longer enjoy their communities, churches, and clubs. They “sit on the couch to watch television” (p. 39). The UK has appointed a minister for loneliness. To those who think Indigenous talk about community, family, Elders, and such is just nostalgia, I submit the Roseto Effect. A famous study of the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania found a close, tightly knit community where “social bonds resulted in a lack of stress and enormous reduction in heart disease. The people in Roseto smoked, drank and ate fatty sausages, but they didn’t have heart attacks” because of the effect of their close-knit community” (p. 108).  

Am I overreaching? Don’t these problems sound the same as problems on reserves, among urban Indians, or those living off-reserves? Doesn’t the opioid epidemic sound as purposeful as the starvation policies of the 19th Century? The opioid epidemic costs the US half a trillion dollars a year—about $4,000 per household. Baltimore’s health commissioner wrote “a citywide prescription to all…620,000 residents for naloxone” the drug which counters the effects of opioids (p. 96). And just like most of the problems among Indians on and off reserves, the cause is external. There is an opioid epidemic because the pharmaceutical companies, government, and doctors made one. In at least one year, doctors in Michigan wrote more opioid prescriptions than there are people in the entire state. Do no harm, heh? Authors Kristof and WuDunn document kickbacks to doctors, payments to consultants to promote the drugs, and communications plans to counter the messages from parents of kids who overdose. 

We’ve all had challenges with Internet access, computer operations, apps, and working online. The challenges increased during the pandemic. Some examples are even funny, such as the power companies that show you where power is off on a map you can only access if the power is on and you can run your computer. We all have long tales of trying to navigate government websites or trying to buy necessities online. What’s not funny is trying to educate young people or serve the health needs of all people in a remote location with poor quality connections. What’s even worse is allowing computers to run the criminal justice system. In some US states, indigent people are slapped with 66 different fees. There’s even a fee to apply for a public defender. This is sketch comedy, not justice. If you have no money, you have to pay money to defend yourself. Some rack up tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Some states tack on a one-dollar charge. If all other bail and charges are dropped, that dollar is still on the computer. Some people in jail can’t access their bank accounts to obtain the dollar, don’t have English language skills, a friend to help out, or even a bank account. One university student volunteer took “twenty-four hours and three jail visits to pay an inmate’s single dollar of bail” (p. 64).

  A tragic version of reliance on computers is in Arkansas. That state requires documentation of work hours to qualify for Medicaid. They have to “log their work hours online with an email address and a code sent by mail, and proceed through several successive web pages.” Can you guess the life-threatening punch line? The state is 48th in Internet access and obviously many who need Medicaid don’t have email or Internet. With no clear explanation of the requirements, how to reapply, or report work hours, 72 percent could not comply. And this is supposed to be a program to help people (Kristof & WuDunn, p. 64).   

I’m still hearing the voices of children. American children “are 55 percent more likely to die than kids in other affluent countries…” America loses 58 children a day. A baby born in a White, affluent area of Philadelphia has “a life expectancy twenty years longer than a baby born four miles away in the mostly” Black area of the city. Many of the babies who are born are raised without a mother (p. 147). There’s a pregnancy related death in the US twice a day, on average. One of the most “dangerous places in the advanced world to become pregnant is the American South…” (p. 152-153).          

What can be done? We’ve learned in the pandemic that paying people not to work creates a culture of dependency and idleness. We’ve learned that subsidizing large corporations usually means more money for shareholders and senior management—not for workers or a break for consumers. We have always known that if you employ someone that person has more dignity and purpose than if you just pay them to stay home. We have always known that if you invest a dollar in a child less than seven years of age, you will save twenty or so dollars later in that child’s life. Dental care, general health care, eye care, hygiene, diet, education, exercise, and skills are all investments, not costs. It’s pay now or pay much more later. The other thing we have long known is that if you employ or help disadvantaged people, they will benefit immediately and spend the money on necessities—food, clothing, shelter, health care. Sure, some will buy the proverbial drugs, case of beer, and bag of potato chips, but more money goes directly to more people than hoping it will filter down through institutions. We may need control and counselling with these direct payments. Some of the control involves a shorter supply chain. This means fewer government bodies and other organizations siphoning off a little of the funding and creating more administrative costs in the process. But at least they won’t disperse the money to shareholders or projects offshore. We also have long known that many public works are both necessities and investments. By the end of the pandemic there should not have been one pothole, unpainted public building, leaky library roof, or maintenance needed for water, sewer, electrical, or other systems. We missed an opportunity to invest, but should still take that opportunity to create a better, sustainable, and more peaceful society.

A chapter written by Chief Hugh Akagi (Peskotomuhkati Nation) for the book, Emergency! Quarantine, Evacuation, and Back Again


More from Chief Hugh Akagi in the book,
Emergency! Quarantine, Evacuation, and Back Again