November 23, 2020

Essay: Why Resilience Matters

And why I'm lucky


I’m lucky to be alive, and glad to be here—particularly in the throes of a disease that has killed some 257,000 Americans.

That’s the entire population of the city of Spokane in Washington or Richmond, Virginia.

As one governor said about deaths from the novel Coronavirus in his state, “those are our brothers and sisters.”

On this chilly October day in Portland, I think about my grandmother, who was born in an American Indian village in Oklahoma just after the turn of the century.

My grandmother was barely a teen when the Spanish influenza spread world-wide in the early 1900s.

Some 675,000 people died from the Spanish flu in the United States, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That means 6.4% of citizens died by the end of the pandemic: about six in a thousand individuals, according to 1918 morbidity reports.

But for Indigenous peoples, the number was significantly higher.

The flu was notable for its ability to spread rapidly and attack folks of all ages.

For example, in South Dakota—home to many of my relatives—deaths among Native folks far outnumbered their non-Indian counterparts.

“Reservation deaths were four times higher than the general population,” writes James Giago Davies for Native Sun News Today.

At the turn of the century, the flu proved one more blow to Indigenous resilience.

Smallpox, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, typhus, bubonic plague, cholera, and scarlet fever had already ravaged communities.

Scholars estimate Indigenous peoples numbered in the millions in North America when settlers arrived.

By the late 1800s, the Native population shrunk to about 530,000, according to New Scientist.

Today, the coronavirus has hit Indigenous communities hard, just like the Spanish flu.

“American Indian and Alaska Native people are 5.3 times more likely than white people to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, the largest disparity for any racial or ethnic group,” according to US News and World Report.

And the numbers continue to rise: more than 900 people die each day from the coronavirus.

I am fortunate to live in a community that protects individuals from harm.

Unfortunately, my risks are high—not just because of age—but because it looks like I’ve inherited some of the traits that make American Indian descendants more vulnerable.

My grandmother would survive the Spanish flu only to attract the tuberculosis bacterium that ravaged Indian Country.

Without effective medicines to treat TB, doctors instead removed one of granny’s lungs, which gave her many more years to pursue drink and smoke, and reclaim her sassy self.

Before the arrival of the Spanish flu, tuberculosis claimed the lives of half of the residents on the Dakota reservations.

Today, TB plagues Indigenous peoples in North America, where the rate of infection is 290-times higher among Inuit than other, non-Indigenous Canadians.

Like her mother, my mother contracted an immune disease that attacked her lungs in late middle-age.

She needed extra oxygen to breathe, took mountains of steroids, and still lived well into her 80s.

As for me?

I was surprised to learn 10 years ago that a sneaky cousin of TB—Micobacterium Avian—sought refuge in my lungs.

Turns out the rare disease is more likely to affect folks living in communities of color.

The bacteria are sly at hiding deep inside lung tissue and taking up residence before some wily physician notices them.

After several years of swallowing antimicrobials to subdue the bacteria, I permitted a surgeon to remove parts of my lungs and restore my health.

Are my familial connections a reflection of inheritable risks?


Meantime, I consider myself lucky.

Lucky because I am a member of a group of Native Americans and Native American descendants who have managed to resist some of the illnesses that decimated our relatives.

And lucky because maybe I have inherited a thimbleful of that resilience.

About the author

Cynthia Coleman, Ph.D.

Cynthia is a Professor of Communications at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, specializing in Native Americans in the media, science and communications. She writes and lectures about how mass media frame conflicts that affect Indigenous communities—particularly conflicts where science, risk, health and the environment take center stage. Her new book, “Environmental Clashes on Native American Land,” is now available.