By William J. Bauer Jr., co-author of We Are the Land: A History of Native California

This guest post is part of our #OAH2021 conference series. Visit our virtual exhibit to learn more and get 40% off the book.

In late April 2020, my co-author, Damon Akins, and I submitted the final draft of our book We Are the Land: A Native History of California.  We did so about a month after our lives had changed abruptly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We were teaching our students via Zoom, experiencing the dismay of cancelled conferences (such as the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians), and attending remote faculty meetings (perhaps not all changes were for the worse). 

While our book chronicles a history, in certain ways it foretells how California Indian people and nations have responded in the past year to the COVID-19 pandemic. The book tells the long history of California’s Indigenous People, from creation, to Spanish, Mexican and American colonialism, to the ongoing political, economic and cultural revitalization in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  We challenge the idea that California Indians vanished from the state – a persisting belief, despite a proliferation of scholarship by California Indian and non-Indigenous scholars and the actions of California Indian people and nations to the contrary. Rather than disappearing during the period of Spanish missions or the American Gold Rush, California Indians pursued strategies of “survivance” – not merely surviving, but thriving in California.

Over the last year, we’ve seen how American Indian have continued a long tradition of survivance to cope with the devastating effects of the pandemic. In California, as well as the rest of the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the long-standing implications of settler colonialism. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that American Indians and Alaska Natives were “at a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes.”  This prognosis stems from years of land dispossession and an underfunded Indian Health Service.  We have also witnessed tribal nations exercising their inherent sovereignty. Throughout Indian Country, tribal governments and health services rose to the immense challenges posed by COVID-19 and worked to protect their most vulnerable citizens.  Two places in California where this occurred were the Yurok Reservation and Riverside County.

360 miles north of San Francisco along California Highway 101, the Yurok Reservation is located in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties, along the Klamath River. As the United States prepared to lockdown because of the pandemic, the Yurok tribal council quickly issued orders to combat the spread of COVID-19.  The Yurok Tribes closed its borders to all nonmembers, issued a shelter-in-place order, and established a curfew for all those living on the reservation. Further, Yuroks set up a food and supplies delivery system for elders and offered full-service at the tribe’s gas station so people would not have to get out of their vehicles while fueling up.  The Yurok tribal government established these proactive measures to protect those living on the reservation, 60 percent of whom are either elders or have underlying health conditions. These were hard decisions with financial repercussions.  Yuroks have spent recent years attempting to rejuvenate northern California’s tourist economy, which benefits Yuroks and non-Indians in Del Norte County.  Still, Yuroks closed non-essential businesses, such as the Redwood Hotel and Casino and Klamath Jet Boat Tours. Both businesses provide financial support for the tribe’s many social services.

In California and across Indian Country, tribal nations’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic entangled with long-standing battles with state and county officials over Indigenous sovereignty.

William Bauer Jr.

Members of the Yurok Nation also adapted their customary religious practices to combat COVID-19.  Yurok practice what are called World Renewal Ceremonies.  Throughout the year, Yuroks hold three ceremonies that restore balance to the world and make sure it operates properly.  In April 2020, the Yurok held a socially distant Jump Dance, part of their World Renewal Ceremony, to “fix the earth.” Dance organizers knew that not everyone could attend the ceremony so they implored people to dance at home or pray in some fashion. Yurok sovereignty – political and cultural – was not something relegated to the past. Rather, Yuroks wielded political power and practiced customary ceremonies in a new setting.

Throughout all this, Yuroks faced challenges to their sovereignty.  Instead of respecting the Yurok Tribe’s reservation closure and shelter-in-place order, a nontribal member who owned a diner in Klamath on the reservation, restored dine-in services. Despite a warning from the tribe and the Del Norte County Health Office, the owners continued to serve patrons. Adding insult to injury, a member of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors encouraged people on Facebook to join him in a sit-in protest at the diner, openly defying the reservation’s standing order and putting the tribes’ elders at risk.  Eventually, the diner owners altered their services to partially comply with the tribe and county orders.

The Yurok Nation was not the only American Indian nation to face a challenge from non-Indians. The Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River tribes clashed with the governor of South Dakota over road checkpoints at reservation borders. In California and across Indian Country, tribal nations’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic entangled with long-standing battles with state and county officials over Indigenous sovereignty.

Despite opposition, California Indian nations will continue to use their resources to battle the pandemic.  California Indian nations currently serve on the front lines of vaccinating California’s population.  In February, Riverside-San Bernardino County Indian Health, Inc. (RSBCIHI), administered vaccines to elders.  In 1968, the RSBCIHI began as a nonprofit on southern California’s Morongo Reservation.  Today, 17,000 people in southern California rely on the tribal clinics for health care.  The RSBCIHI sought assistance from the Indian Health Service for the first and second waves of the COVID-19 vaccine because it feared that the state of California was moving too slowly on providing vaccines to California Indian nations. Vaccines in hand, the RSBCIHI emerged as a primary way for elders to receive the vaccine. California Indian nations have created the political and social infrastructure to combat COVID-19 and set their nations on the path to restoring some semblance of normal.

Readers of We Are the Land will discover that the Yurok and RSBCIHI’s actions did not magically spring out the pandemic, nor did the actions of those non-Indians who violated Yurok sovereignty. As our book reveals, Indigenous People in California and North America have long exercised their sovereignty and practiced survivance, and are continuing that tradition in the face of a global pandemic and ongoing assaults on land and water.