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Science and Innovations

Indigenous Scholar Discusses Racism In The Time Of COVID-19

Getty Images/Mark Ralston

The coronavirus pandemic has been hard on everyone. But for Indigenous people and people of color, even simple precautions like washing your hands and wearing a mask are complicated by racism and longstanding disparities in access to resources. Sonja Smith is a cultural anthropology student at Northern Arizona University who recently wrote about racism and the pandemic in an online journal called The Conversation. Smith spoke with KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny about the deep divide between Arizona’s tribal nations and the bordering towns.

Tell me about the research you do in cultural anthropology and what drew you to studying that topic?

I read an article about Misty Upham. She’s the Native American actress who had gone missing and nobody was looking for her... When her body was found it was ruled an accident. But it was obvious she’d been through a lot. That got me interested because I was wondering why no one was looking for her, she’s an actress, she’s famous… and I really got interested in the missing and murdered indigenous peoples, the injustices…and how a lot of the blame was being shifted, and how it was just seen as an indigenous problem, but the more research I did I was seeing a lot of these indigenous people were going missing from urban areas. There was a huge disconnect in how the story was being told in the media.

The article you wrote in The Conversation talked a lot about how we ended up in this situation, and the structural racism that created these disparities in resources. Can you talk a little bit about that?

A lot of people don’t understand that reservations were set up to fail… A lot of businesses see it as a risky investment. People don’t want to build anything out there. So the money we do make on the reservation, we have to travel to border towns. The money doesn’t stay on the reservation and nothing gets built up. So we get the border towns complaining about: why do we they come into our towns and infecting everyone? They don’t understand we don’t have any other place to go, we don’t have millions of different grocery stores or a Walmart we can run to. My grandparents still have to travel a couple of hours just to get to Walmart. And the grocery stores that are on the reservation charge a lot of money for fresh vegetables and healthy food…. There’s no clean drinking water, all the water has to be hauled, and only 40 percent of people have access to running water in their homes. So it’s just access to basic necessities that so much of us take for granted.

You mentioned earlier this idea of blame, or people treating folks on the reservations as if they’re outsiders or even treating them as if they’re infected and dangerous. Have you encountered that yourself?

I’ve been staying home a lot, because I am scared of—when you do wear a mask, people do think you are sick. When the first issue of the masks came up, I was worried about indigenous men because people already perceive them as threats or threatening, and if they were wearing a mask that would just heighten it.

How do we solve those structural racism issues that make a pandemic like this so difficult for places like Navajo and Hopi?

Definitely giving those people a voice. Like with the missing and murdered indigenous peoples issue, it’s definitely looking away from the mainstream and looking into different communities and being open to different people’s perspectives. And not being so quick to judge. With the structural racism, a lot of us, we are taught in school that history is one way and everything else is wrong. It’s being open different perspectives of history.

Sonja Smith, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Thank you so much.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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