Together We Are a Strong People

Together we are a strong people. Our actions provide hope as we face COVID-19.Today, Sunday the 29th of March, we finally saw the projected numbers for possible deaths that I have long known* were the reality we face. I expect these numbers gripped many Americans in a physiological shock response. Here is how to know if that’s what happened to you. In a shock response, you feel all the energy in your body drop into the pit of your stomach like ice water. At the same time, you feel the blood drain out of your limbs as if someone pulled a plug somewhere. All this happens in the space of a fraction of a second. If you’re standing up at the time, you feel you may faint. A shock response is the body’s reaction to traumatic levels of fear. If that happens to you, here is what you must do.

First, breathe. Focus on the exhale. Don’t just think about it, but do it right now. Exhale longer than you inhale. At first it might be hard. You might even feel like you can’t get a breath to come IN to your lungs at all. That’s why it helps to focus on the EXhale at first. If you have to, push in your stomach with your hands a little, to help drive the air out of your lungs. Close your eyes when you do it. Feel the air coming up out of your arms and legs as well as your lungs. Yes, I know technically, physically, that isn’t what happens. But in other ways, it is precisely what happens. Try it, and keep trying it, and you’ll see.

Eventually you will be able to draw in a nice breath. It might even make you shiver or hiccup when you do. When you can get a nice breath this way, make that next exhale even longer. Focus even more on the sense that all the rigidity in your arms and legs is melting or dissolving, and being blown out of your body with your breath. Once you get this process going, keep it up until you can feel the relaxation spreading through all your body, finally up through your shoulders, then your neck, and at last your jaws and face and scalp. Then shake your arms and hands loose, and shake out one leg at a time. Shake yourself all over. Yawn. Stretch.

Now. We don’t need to go into the biology of how or why that works. But it does, and you should be feeling a bit better as a result. Any time you feel your body grow rigid in the coming weeks, or you feel you can’t take a breath, repeat this process. It’s very important to keep your body relaxed enough for blood to circulate properly. This also keeps your body from secreting hormones that increase your sense of anxiety and fear. Feeling calm is a losing battle if you are fighting your own body. Breathing like this helps you and your body be on the same side. It helps you work together. This is important because fear actually makes us less able to think clearly.

So here are some clear thoughts, now that your mind and body are calm: Human beings have faced much worse pandemics than this one many, many times over the millennia. Most of them were from diseases that were a lot more lethal than this one. We all carry the genetic memories of those earlier times of plague — what we now call a pandemic. So of course our bodies respond with fear. But THIS time we humans know more than we did then. We understand how to short-circuit the disease’s transmission. In the past, people didn’t know any of the things we know now, that can help us protect ourselves and our families.

  • We know that the disease is caused by a virus, not by some strange characteristic of the air (called “miasma” — the place people of the dominant culture used to think diseases came from). Because we know where the disease comes from, we know that the key to staying healthy is avoiding close contact with someone who is sick, and also not spreading the disease ourselves through our own actions. That may seem very simple, but it’s something people did not know in the past.
  • Many, many researchers and physicians have been studying this particular virus for about three months. They have learned how it is passed from one person to another, what it takes to kill it, how long it can live on a surface such as a doorknob, and many other things. They have used this information to prepare all those guidelines you’ve been hearing: to wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds, to stay at least 6 feet away from other people, and to wipe down non-porous surfaces such as shopping cart handles, cell phones, and doorknobs. All these pieces of life-saving information are things people did not know in the past.
  • We know how diseases move through populations. By now you are hearing terms like “exponential growth” and “doubling time.” These are terms you will come to understand soon, if you haven’t quite wrapped your mind around them yet. They help all of us — and will help you — be able to SEE when our efforts to slow this virus’s spread actually take place. This will encourage us to not quit too soon. Some places are already seeing this slow-down happen. The measures we are taking have been taken in other places and they’ve worked. They will work here, too — IF we follow the guidelines.

The biggest threat to all of us is for some of us to act like we are still living in the year 1220 instead of the year 2020. Follow the guidelines. Live.

We also have many ways to treat viral pneumonia now that we didn’t have in the past. It’s true that our hospitals may be short on the equipment that can treat the sick, but that’s even more reason to follow the guidelines. Slowing the spread of this disease “flattens the curve” (as you’ve also heard) and allows hospitals to keep handing the influx of people who are ill. Again, if we pay attention to the things we know now that we did not know in the past, we humans can triumph over this pandemic.

Now for the non-medical parts of dealing with your shock response. Indian experience of being ravaged by new diseases is pretty recent. European settlers brought many diseases to America that had never been here before. Sometimes entire villages were wiped out within days by diseases such as smallpox. If any group of people in the world should be in a panic about this pandemic, it’s Indians. Let me share the way many of us are trying to see it, how we are talking about it to one another. Of course, that is what I have been doing for several posts already, and will be doing for many more to come. But right now we are talking about the way to handle this fear response, this sense of shock.

When you read the following words, I give you permission to “repeat after me” and say them (or some version of them) for yourself:

We have survived epidemics before, and we didn’t know as much then as we know now. We will survive this epidemic. It cannot beat us. We are a strong people.

We know that what matters is caring for our helpless, our very old, our very young, our mothers bearing babies. We know that those of us who are young and strong must be certain these others have food and water, shelter and clothing, and medicine. We are a people, not just individuals. We are relations. In our quarantine, yet we are one people and we let ourselves perceive this. In this unity is a strength that can overcome any challenge.

We know that the mind and body work together to keep people whole and healthy, to give people strength and keep people strong. We know we must rise each morning and pray for guidance and strength, and then pray again at night before we lie down to sleep. We must take good care of our bodies through this time in order to have the strong, calm wisdom these times call upon us to have. We must thank our bodies for helping us to be strong. We must thank our minds for helping us to think clearly and without fear.

We must breathe in the air of this Land and ask for its strength every day — for the strength of the mountains, of the rivers; of the skies and the forests, of the vast grasslands, of the deep lakes, of the seas that beat upon the shores and everything in those waters. These things are part of us, and we are part of them. They will help us in this time of trial. We must thank them for their help every day.

We must set aside time each day to do an act that reminds us to focus on these things. We Native people like to burn sage, but you can light a candle, pray or chant using beads, ring a bell, kneel, sing a sacred song, recite a poem, read a sacred text or tell a story from your own religious tradition, or any other thing that is an ACTION that calls your entire being into a focus on this one moment. And in that moment, rise up within yourself and feel the absolute KNOWLEDGE that you can face this time. For you were born into it, and here you are. So of course you can face it. More, you can help everyone in your family face it. Engage them in these actions with you. Include the children, for they are afraid too. Teach them these ways of your ancestors, who are also their ancestors. You can be the one who helps them find this strength within themselves, as you have found it.

Make no mistake, the strength to walk this road is within you. Fear can drive you away from that Knowledge. Fear can make you forget the Knowledge researchers have given you so you know what to do to protect yourself, your family, and everyone in your community from the ravages of this plague. Fear can make you forget the Knowledge of our ancestors that tells us how to live as strong human beings, with pride that we are part of a greater and very mighty whole. It is important you REMEMBER these Knowledges. Do not let fear make you forget them.

You are a human being. You can do this. WE can do this. TOGETHER.

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* I knew the numbers of expected fatalities because I am an evolutionary biologist. And, yes, I am enrolled Choctaw.. Those things are not mutually exclusive. If this seems puzzling or illogical to you, please read our pages on Different Ways of Knowing. It’s what we are all about, here. Thank you.

Research In Service to the Land

Figure 5. A photograph made in 1890, when naturalist Lewis Lindsay Dyche was mounting the skin of the horse called Comanche, showing what is inside it.
Figure 5. A photograph made in 1890, when naturalist Lewis Lindsay Dyche was mounting the skin of the horse called Comanche, showing what is inside it.

Last year, organizers for the 2016 meeting of the American Indigenous Research Association asked me to share my experience in science as a Native woman. As I started preparing the paper, which I delivered at the end of last month, I asked myself: “What do I wish I had known, going in, that could have prepared me for the hidden obstacles that face a Native person in science research?”

I decided it’s not the “how-to” of the concrete ways I applied Indigenous research methods to studies of plesiosaur and dinosaur locomotion, sabertooth jaw mechanics, and evolutionary theory. It wasn’t actually hard to apply Indigenous ways of knowing and learning to my work. Like many Indigenous people, I do it in my regular life. So of course I do it when I teach, and of course it’s how I approach my research. It’s second nature. I think all you have to do is open yourself up to it and it happens.

What I wish I had understood is how deeply Western science was going to resist my methods and how relentlessly it would try to change them. And I wish I’d known why. Because this is the key to realizing you can’t fix the problem. What looks like a stone you can dislodge with a bit of effort when you trip over it is actually the visible tip of a buried mountain.

You can read more about my thoughts and experiences in science as a Native woman in the published version of this presentation, “In Service to the Land: Indigenous Research Methods in the Natural Sciences,” which is now online in full format.