Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Southern California’s Native American population faced struggles with poverty and a lack of access to health care. Chrissie Castro, Chair of the Los Angeles City and County Native American Indian Commission, joined Inside the Issues to discuss the “devastating impact” of COVID-19 on Native Americans.

“Because of a history of genocide, trauma, and other impacts in the community, our community has health disparities, which have given rise to us having a lot of the underlying conditions that make this virus so deadly,” Castro said. “We have high rates of diabetes, high rates of cancer, of asthma, of hypertension, of all of the things we know that make our community more vulnerable.”

Castro said not all Native American families could afford to buy weeks- or months-worth of food to prepare for sheltering at home. The economic impact of COVID-19 on Native American communities is immense. Most revenue collected by Native American nation-states comes from casinos and gaming facilities, but these have been shut down due to the pandemic. Without them, not much money is coming into tribal bank accounts.

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“We’re talking about nation-states no longer having their revenue base,” she said. “All of the things that tribes do for their surrounding communities, all of the ways that they are taking care of themselves with that revenue, for education, for health, all of a sudden there's none of that.”

Castro said money from the government’s stimulus packages “hasn’t come quick enough, and the investment and Native communities in tribal nations is nowhere near adequate to meet the need.” On top of this, Castro said Native Americans are the most undercounted population in the U.S.

“The last census, we had nationally a 5% undercount, especially in rural and reservation and rashtriya areas,” she said. “So it's really critical that we're getting out the word that we really need to address the immediate crisis of COVID-19.”

This pandemic crisis has impacted the mental health of Native Americans as well.

“I believe that in our genetic memory of our DNA, we have been a people who have suffered pandemics before upon contact—smallpox and measles and then other things where we had devastating losses in our community—so there have been real historic and contemporary mental health, social, emotional impact of what’s been happening.”

When Southern Californians began sheltering at home in March, Castro did a Facebook live to inform the Native American community of what’s happening with COVID-19.

“We knew that our community wasn't necessarily going to trust the media outlets or the government, and they needed to hear from trusted messengers on what the message was and how we needed to shelter at home,” she said. “We needed to connect our traditional value systems as indigenous peoples to the severity of what was about to happen.”

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Castro said she’s using creative and non-traditional ways of getting messages out to the community. Since she knows most Native Americans have cell phones, she said the Los Angeles City and County Native American Indian Commission is doing phone banking and running texting programs. It’s also in the process of printing out mailers to go to people’s homes.

Castro says the Commission wants to make sure Native Americans have immediate access to COVID-19 resources, such as knowing where to get food and medication and how to apply for unemployment benefits.

“Because of a lot of various assimilation policies, our community has been disbursed graphically, so we don't have an ethnic enclave where we can send messages or do community organizing,” she said. “We're very worried about all of our native people that don't have access to the internet, that might not be getting these messages, so we have been really just working around the clock in figuring out how to make sure all of our people are protected.”

One of the groups that needs the most protection is Native American elders.

“We have a very, very deep respect and reverence to our elders, and so we have been really impressing upon the community how devastating this is to our folks that are older in age as well as immuno-compromised,” she said. “We have an inherent value in every life and how critical it was for us to take the necessary precautions to not be exposed to the virus.”



Health care providers have been making difficult decisions when it comes to offering care to patients. Do they pick a young child or an elderly person? Castro believes age shouldn’t be a factor in deciding who receives care and who doesn’t.

“It actually makes me want to cry to think that somebody would value life differently across our age continuum,” Castro said. “Not only for our families, but for all families, I would imagine that our elders are the ones that have lived through so much and so much adversity. They have so much wisdom. They have stories to tell us. They have ways of making sure that we're living in a good way. They are the holders often of our traditional stories in native communities. Sometimes in some communities they would represent the last speakers of our language. So to think that those people are expendable really just signals to me that we are out of touch with our humanity.”

Castro believes we need to reconnect with what’s important.

“We need to connect with the land and really listen to this as a warning, not only for pandemic, but for climate change, and the inevitable disaster will be coming to us if we don’t make significant changes to the ways that we live,” she said. “It signals to me that we’re out of balance with how every life is precious, and how everyone has a contribution, and that our elders are among those that have the most special contribution to us.”

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