Pandemics are Not New: What Can Indigenous Worldviews Teach Us?


Blog Editor

Publish date

February 4, 2021

by Jennifer McCurdy, PhD, BSN, MH, HEC-C

Pandemics are not new to human experience. Stories of the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and waves of smallpox, cholera, and measles have a place in the collective social memory. But something happens viscerally when the experience is first-hand. A witnessing of overrun emergency rooms, dropping oxygen saturations, empty grocery store shelves, and make-shift morgues on semi-trucks stir a common dread. Health care workers and other essential personnel experience waves of exhaustion, anger, moral distress, and a fear of death concurrent with a deep sense of duty toward humanity. Social media contains frame after frame of portraits of the loved ones lost…aunts, mentors, fathers, neighbors, colleagues, social icons. Racial disparities in both COVID deaths and distribution of vaccines have received growing attention. Policy proposals to address systemic racism in the U.S. are gaining some momentum. Much will be learned from retrospective analysis about stockpiling PPE and ventilators, of triage protocols, of federal and local response teams in the saving of the most lives. This will be important work. Yet, when stockpiles are refilled, when policies are rewritten, when people are buried, and the economy starts to hum again, will this pandemic have transformed us? Perhaps we have something to learn about resiliency from our Indigenous relatives.

Harold Napoleon, in his famous essay Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being, describes the influenza epidemic of 1900 in Alaska as yuut tuqurpallratni, “when a great many died.” His story is but one of many across the Americas of strong, intact Indigenous communities being devastated by epidemics for which they possessed no immunity – epidemics brought to them from the outside world. Epidemic after epidemic (along with colonialism and genocide) eventually atrophied communities making them more vulnerable to outside coercion. Each epidemic left Indigenous communities vulnerable to famine, the orphaning of children, and the loss of critical members of the tribe. When Elders died, some of the community died with them. When hunters died, something essential also died with them. When mothers and healers died, so too, essence was lost, threatening the whole. Many Indigenous communities eventually succumbed to boarding schools and assimilation programs that attempted to erase their thousands of years-old worldviews.  

According to Napoleon, for the Yup’ik Peoples, Yuuyaraq was the law that “governed all aspects of a human being’s life.” Yuuyaraq provided “the correct way of thinking and speaking about all living things” in order to maintain harmonious relationships. And as Napoleon notes, the key to healing from the deep trauma sustained by Indigenous Peoples is not primarily in material things. Indeed, the social determinants of health are important for physical life to continue. But true healing is in the spiritual dimensions of care – it lies in the knowledge and respect of one’s values, one’s Indigenous ways. The essence of being Yup’ik (or Inupiaq, Osage, or Crow) are the salves and the seeds of healing and renewal. This idea of spirit is neither the Christian soul nor half of Descartes’ mind/body duality. It is an integrated worldview of a balanced relationship with the world and everything in it. Now a critical mass is forming and Indigenous communities are healing. They are recovering their past traditions and reimagining new futures. It is these Indigenous worldviews that have enabled the survival and thriving of communities for thousands of years.  

After COVID 19, and once our purchasing capacity is restored, our morning commutes commence, and grocery shopping once again becomes routine, what can we learn from the resilience and renewal of the original protectors of this land upon which we all live? What values govern our lives collectively – what is our Yuuyaraq? More pointedly, if we were to consider the healing work of Indigenous peoples by focusing on relationship, balance, and communal responsibilities, the answers to our most pressing questions would come into focus. We would make choices to protect our health care workers and essential personnel. Triage protocols would not instill the greatest fear in the most vulnerable. Communities of color would not continue experiencing disproportionate effects in the next crisis, and the next. My fear is that after a year of economic disruption and physical isolation, we will be susceptible to falling back into the open arms of corporatism, of toxic political polemics, of feel-good marketing. Or can we, like our Indigenous relatives, prioritize values of giving over consuming, people over profits, reciprocity over rugged individualism, elder safety and protection over the sacrifice of 9th inning-ers? After the pandemic will we, like our Indigenous relatives, work to reimagine a future by recovering the best of who we are? While material wealth and brilliant utilitarian calculations are small consolations, the lack of collective values may leave us more fragile and vulnerable as a whole.   

Robin Kimmerer, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass writes, “How do we recognize what we should reclaim and what is dangerous refuse? What is truly medicine for the living earth and what is a drug of deception?  None of us can recognize every piece, let alone carry it all. We need each other, to take a song, a word, a story, a tool, a ceremony and put it in our bundles. Not for ourselves, but for the ones yet to be born, for all our relations. Collectively, we assemble from the wisdom of the past a vision for the future, a worldview shaped by mutual flourishing.”

After this pandemic, what will we, the future ancestors, consider as refuse to leave behind; and what will go into our bundles for all our relatives?   

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