WOLF POINT, Mont. — Lawrence Wetsit misses the days when his people would gather by the hundreds and sing the songs that all Assiniboine children are expected to learn by age 15.
“We can’t have ceremony without memorizing all of the songs, songs galore,” he said. “We’re not supposed to record them: We have to be there. And when that doesn’t happen in my grandchildren’s life, they may never catch up.”
Such ceremonial gatherings have been scarce over the past year as Native American communities like Wetsit’s isolate to protect their elders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reservations have been hit especially hard, with Native Americans nearly twice as likely to die as white people. Wetsit, a tribal elder and former chair of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, said his tribe lost one person a day on average to the disease during October and November.
The deaths are doubly devastating to Native communities when they strike elders, as they are seen as the keepers of tribal history and culture. Wetsit worries that the combination of deaths and lockdowns will permanently harm the tribe’s ability to share traditional knowledge and oral history.
“Our grandchildren will feel it in their generation,” he said. “It’s like taking a number of pages of their textbook and ripping it out and throwing it away.”
With that in mind, many Native people have found innovative ways throughout the pandemic to continue sharing their culture despite physical distancing restrictions. Social media groups have provided some remedies, in ways that may continue after the pandemic wanes.
“If there was ever a time where we could see how interconnected our world is, that time is now,” said Jeneda Benally, a musician and member of the Navajo tribe in Arizona.
One Facebook group, known as Social Distance Powwow, has helped its Native members connect through sharing videos of drumming, dancing and other traditions. Since its founding in March, the group has accumulated more than 227,000 members and taken on a life of its own, with people sharing prayer requests, birthday celebrations and death announcements.
“We didn’t expect it to take off like it did,” said group co-founder Dan Simonds, an artist based in Bozeman, Montana, and a member of the Pequot tribe. “It showed how much something like this was needed.”
For group members who rarely leave their isolated reservations, the videos provide an opportunity to see other tribes’ homes and traditions for the first time. “Every tribe is different, like every European country,” Simonds said.
The group has provided a platform to talk about important issues. In January, organizers hosted a Facebook Live chat with a doctor, nurses and community representatives who could answer group members’ questions about COVID-19 vaccines. Skepticism about the safety of vaccination tends to be high among Native Americans, and more than 9,500 people viewed the event. “People are listening and learning,” Simonds said.
Simonds expects the group will continue after the pandemic ends, and he has created a nonprofit spinoff that plans to hold in-person powwows once it is safe. “This is one of the first times in history we have our own space by Natives where Natives can be heard,” he said.
Among other powwow events that have seen an online resurgence is the jingle dress dance, an Ojibwe tradition usually performed by groups of women wearing skirts adorned with tinkling metal bells. Women from various tribes have been posting Instagram videos of themselves dancing alone at home.
Brenda Child, an Ojibwe historian at the University of Minnesota, is not surprised the dance has become so popular during the pandemic. “Most women and young girls are very aware that that is a healing tradition,” she said.
According to legend, jingle dress dancing arose during the 1918 flu pandemic when a father with a sick little girl dreamed of a healing dance and had the dresses made for four women in his tribe. The girl recovered and became one of the first jingle dress dancers.
Child said the jingle dress tradition resonates because it is supposed to heal both the body and the mind during a time when fear and grief are rampant. “Ojibwe have always been aware there’s this psychological aspect to disease,” she said.
But some traditions are more difficult to share online, particularly those that rely on oral stories told by elders. Internet access can be scarce on remote reservations, and many older people struggle to use technologies like video chat. “It’s hard enough for our communities and elders to transmit that information to the next generation, but trying to find a way to do that with social distancing in this era is especially hard,” said Clayson Benally, Jeneda’s brother.
Since the Benallys’ band, Sihasin, can’t tour during the pandemic, the siblings have been performing online. They are also making instructional videos of traditional Navajo practices such as shearing sheep and harvesting medicinal plants.
“This is my desperate attempt to ensure that our culture continues to exist,” said Jeneda Benally. “Even though we’re losing people, this knowledge still exists. I don’t want our people to sink into a depression.”
Some practices are too sacred to share online, she said. Tribal members must walk a fine line between keeping people engaged and revealing privileged information to outsiders at the risk of cultural appropriation. Certain rituals, symbols and stories are meant to be shared only orally — many tribes forbid members to even write them down.
“It’s tricky because we have to be very cautious,” said Clayson Benally. “Our ancestors would never have imagined we’re teaching our ways through these airwaves that exist.”
Many Indigenous languages are in danger of disappearing forever, as speakers tend to be elderly and in fragile health. The pandemic has accelerated the threat.
“It’s the equivalent of having jumped forward 10 years and lost speakers that would have been with us still but now are gone,” said Wilhelm Meya, CEO of the nonprofit The Language Conservancy (TLC).
Meya’s organization preserves Indigenous languages through recordings, dictionaries, dubbed movies and lessons — mostly developed by sending linguists to visit Native speakers around the world. After the pandemic began, TLC set up computer terminals in unused schools and community centers on reservations. While staffers control the desktops remotely, language speakers and their families can visit the stations alone and record words.
By setting up six such terminals on the Crow reservation in Montana, TLC completed a four-year effort to develop an online interactive Crow dictionary app. Similar projects are underway with tribes in Wisconsin, Washington and other states.
Meya said the strategy worked so well that TLC will continue using it after the pandemic to record Native languages in remote areas like Alaska and Australia. The nonprofit plans to offer more online lessons: Being stuck at home has led to a surge of interest among Native people in learning their historical languages, he said.
To Wetsit, the knowledge that Native Americans’ culture and communities have persisted through centuries of adversity suggests they will survive this crisis.
“If you’ve had cultural teachings, they’ll help you remember that things will get better and it gives you hope,” he said. “I think that our people realize that our culture can be changed a little bit without great harm. There’s no wrong way to pray.”