An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

In my ancestral language of Muscogee Creek, CVFEKNICETV (juh-fig-nay-je-duh) means “to heal someone or something.”  This message greeted my wife and me as we drove up to the Muscogee Creek Hospital in Okemah, Oklahoma, to receive our COVID-19 vaccines.

The indigenous tribes of North America are excelling at vaccinations, leading many tribes to quickly open appointments for non-citizens after vaccinating a majority of their citizens.  While indigenous people are at a higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, they have responded in an extraordinary and generous way.

Navajo Nation citizen and activist Allie Young told Axios about three guiding principles leading to successful vaccine campaigns and outreach among non-citizens:

  1. Recognize how Native Americans’ actions will impact the next seven generations.
  2. Act in honor of ancestors who fought to ensure their survival and elders who carry on their traditions and cultures.
  3. Hold on to ancestral knowledge in the ongoing fight to protect Mother Earth.

These principles, and Native Americans’ strong sense of community, lead tribes to provide assistance to everyone in need.  Honor, humility, and compassion often drive indigenous peoples to offer help to those in need, even those who have historically treated them poorly.

The town of Okemah, where we were vaccinated, had another significance for me.  My grandmother was named Okemah Eloise Boudinot Randall (1925-2002).   Her name comes from the Kickapoo tradition, meaning “things up high.”  When she was alive, she taught me to be proud of my people, my culture, and our future place in the world.  She was the embodiment of rising high through education, outreach, and generosity.

I must confess my pride in how indigenous communities are reacting to the pandemic and enacting such precise and generous strategies to vaccinate their citizens and neighbors.  While they are living up to ancestral principles, they are also reminding me of another brown-skinned healer long ago.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

After 500 years of exploitation and betrayal by Europeans and Americans, indigenous people can still rise above that history when a greater good is at stake.

After the initial excitement of scheduling our vaccine appointments, my wife confessed that a wave of skepticism had taken hold.

The federal government’s treatment of indigenous peoples throughout the years has been less than stellar.  From the Trail of Tears to Standing Rock, Native lives and cultures have always been forced to take a backseat to the dominant European-American agenda.

Added to this mistrust is the treatment of African slaves and descendants of slaves, as medical experiments were conducted on them without their knowledge or consent.

While we both have the utmost respect for scientists, healthcare workers, and the tribes, the historical reality could not be ignored. Would we be receiving the same vaccine as everyone else?  Would it be as effective?  She felt an uncertainty and uneasiness that she had never before faced when making medical decisions.

Ultimately, she and I both knew the answers to her questions, but she admitted to a new level of compassion for those who have suffered at the hands of unethical medical practices due to their race and lack of privilege.  Those bigoted acts of history conducted primarily on people of color provided us a deeper understanding of the current trauma and questions many consider today.

As I rolled up my sleeve this week and received my second vaccine dose, I could hear the echoes of my grandmother’s trill (lele). Native women often express their excitement about a great victory with a loud succession of high-pitched sounds.  When warriors would return from battle, the echoes of this beautiful song would fill the plains.

All across America this month, you can still hear the sounds of victory.  I am proud to be a citizen of the Muscogee Creek tribe. I am honored to have Native blood flowing through my veins, the blood of my grandmother and ancestors.  And now, I am vaccinated because of the wisdom, courage, and compassion of my tribe.

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