Recognizing an incident with the shadow of a long history of hate

When staff and leadership at Public Health—Seattle & King County learned about the horrific shipment of body bags to our partners at Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB), we were shocked and dismayed. The news generated a private apology and inquiry from Public Health to the CEO of SIHB. And it generated a rapid search of records and files at Public Health and at King County’s Emergency Operations Center.

When we learned that the shipment did not come from us, we were no less disturbed.

The following reflection is from Patty Hayes, Director of Public Health, and Matias Valenzuela, Equity Director for Public Health:

The more we reflect and listen, the more angry and sad we have become.

As a government agency, we must recognize our horrible legacy, an inheritance from generations of national, state and local governments that have taken land and inflicted countless harms and traumas on the Native and Indigenous peoples who live here. 

This particular action – no matter who inflicted it, whatever the intention – resonates in hideous ways with particular historical acts.

If we look at the history of colonization and Indigenous peoples, we know the long road of the violent conquest of land through war has combined with the ravaging effects of disease, often spread deliberately. The devastating effects still resonate loudly today.

The earliest European colonizers delivered packages of blankets to Native tribes – blankets infected with smallpox intended to wipe out entire populations. We understand this happened in the Pacific Northwest, too. How can that not sound eerily familiar at a time when Native communities are fighting to keep their communities safe from an infectious disease pandemic?

Later generations attempted to kill Native cultures by removing children from their ancestral homes and cultures. And up until the present, government agencies refuse to honor tribal sovereignty and the inherent right to self-govern and make decisions for the wellbeing of their people.

Colonization has had cumulative effects that lead to disproportionate rates of disease in Indigenous communities. Stealing lands and resources, combined with limiting access to good paying jobs, healthy foods and education, are together the root causes that make Indigenous peoples more susceptible to underlying health conditions – which also make them more susceptible to complications from COVID-19.

In this regard, the history is still alive today. And the symbolism of body bags has a painful depth to it.

What’s most important, though, is that our local Native and Indigenous communities had the strength to survive all of those attempts at extermination.  And today, they are showing the most amazing resiliency during the times of COVID-19.

We have heard during this pandemic how our local Indigenous sisters and brothers have come together to share and support each other, maintaining traditional practices in an online world. We have heard how services are being provided by the Seattle Indian Health Board in creative and effective ways.

Just as we have so much to learn from our Indigenous communities in terms of health, community and our relation to our environment, we can all learn from them about how we can stand together, even during these challenging times when physically we need to distance.

When we again reached out to Esther Lucero, at Seattle Indian Health Board, she told us, “The package of body bags is symbolic of a long history of injustices experienced by Native peoples. It represents a systemic problem. We need to keep calling attention to these types of experiences to help others understand why equity models are important. Our partnership with King County Public Health is important to us, and we are grateful that they have taken the time to talk with us and address the situation.”

The history is not distant past. It continues to impact the health of individual Native people in King County today. As a local health department, it is central to our mission to support Native peoples in healing from the past. Healing and thriving are central to our purpose. This action thrusts us backward. It frays the threads of trust that we are working to weave.

And healing and words are not enough. We need to right the wrongs. It means getting out of the way, because too often as a broader society we have gotten in the way in such detrimental ways.  It means partnering when necessary to work together effectively. And it means advocating for resources for local Indigenous communities and people so they continue to thrive and flourish.

Originally published 5-21-2020