Stories of Resilience from Indian Country, Volume #9

Coby Klar blog image

Coby Klar

AIPI Graduate Policy Assistant

For one remote Alaska Native village, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a return to tribal traditions and a deeper appreciation for their homelands. One hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, sits a Gwich’in village with a population nearing 200. While isolation was a reality before the pandemic, survival in the ‘new normal’ has required some adjustments. Supply flights into the village have become less frequent, meaning those within the community have been forced to ask more of its members, young and old, to ensure its population has enough to eat. The community has turned to traditional knowledge and resources for sustenance. Recently, the village council designated several tribal members to hunt caribou, a staple food in the Gwich’in tradition. The meat, some of it smoked and dried by young Gwich’in learning traditional methods from elders, will stock grocery store shelves and the freezers of elders to protect those most vulnerable. While the COVID-19 pandemic presented the Gwich’in with a unique set of problems, it also “emphasized the importance of the tribe’s traditions and its profound spiritual connection to the homelands that sustain the caribou and other wildlife on which they depend.” 

The ongoing pandemic has had a devastating impact on the livelihoods of Native American entrepreneurs and small business owners, especially artists and artisans, who are collectively responding with a creative resolve born from centuries of adversity. Since potters, jewelry makers, basketmakers, and the like often rely on in-person, communal markets to sell their work, the social distancing required to slow the spread of the virus has turned the profession on its head. When Santa Fe Indian Market, the country’s oldest and most competitive market, announced that it would be going virtual this August, “ripples of anxiety” flooded communities where artists are untutored in e-commerce or living in isolated areas with little or no internet connectivity. “For Native Americans, art is survival and putting food on the table for your children,” said America Meredith (Cherokee Nation), curator, artist, and editor of First America Art Magazine

(Photo credit: Karen Abeita, Hopi potter, via The New York Times.)

Still, those able to adapt have displayed ingenuity and resilience in the face of newfound adversity. The Social Distance Powwow Facebook group, highlighted in previous blog posts, has established an online Marketplace, where artists can post works for sale. The Iskasokpu Gallery on the Hopi reservation began offering curbside silver pickup for artisans. The Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque, NM started its own Facebook marketplace and flooded its website with COVID-19 support, including ‘Talking Circles’ for artists and videos on marketing basics, perhaps a foreshadowing of virtual markets still to come. “It’s about aesthetic and visual sovereignty,” said Navajo artist Rapheal Begay, who is also the Navajo Nation Department of Health public information officer. “How will Native artists define this moment?” Individual and collective Indigenous resiliency continues to shine through, despite the unique adversities presented in these uncertain times.