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  • Writer's pictureKen Cohen

The Story of the Disease: An Indigenous Perspective on COVID-19

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

A Zapotec shop in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Dana Maza, Flickr Photos

Text ©Kenneth S. Cohen 2020. You are welcome to share as long as you include authorship and cite the source.

One of the many diagnostic tools that a traditional Native American/First Nations healer uses when meeting a client is to listen to the story of the disease or distress. When does the story start; when does it end? Which characters are emphasized, are there some that are left out? And, perhaps most importantly, what are the main lessons of the story, the plots and subplots, and how can these lessons be used to live in a better way? Not all stories have happy endings, but they all have teachings.

I am not saying that these questions go through the mind of a traditional healer, but rather there is a deep intuitive listening with spiritual eyes and ears that includes the essence of these questions and guides the healer in his/her actions.

Ask yourself, what is the story of the current pandemic? What is the epic story that an indigenous storyteller will share in the future about this time on Mother Earth. Perhaps you might even send your spirit into the future right now and listen in. Spirit is not limited by time. Or what story would be told about humanity’s time on earth-- in an imaginary future when human beings are extinct--by the Stone People, the Plant People, the Four-Legged People, the Bird People? “Once upon a time, a long time ago, the Two-Leggeds thought they were People like us…”

Don’t try to answer right now. Rather, let the answer or answers unfold as you pray and think so that, over time, you can receive information, guidance, and meaning.

As a practitioner of Native American/First Nations medicine and with honor to my elders, mentors, and adoptive Cree family, I would like to share with you what I have learned so far.

1. The first lesson of the disease is that the earth is alive and will not tolerate abuse.

The virus is a direct result of colonialism, corporate greed, and climate change. Climate change results in viruses moving into and often thriving in new regions, the release of ancient living viruses hidden under permafrost and ice, shrinking animal habitat, and increasing exposure of humans to animal-borne pathogens. 60% of current infectious diseases are zoonotic, that is originating in animal-human interaction. 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, and the current corona virus is one of these. (Gebreyes WA. et al. 2014)

The continued abuse of animals in feedlots, poaching, and wildlife trade and the poisoning of our food supply with antibiotics, pesticides, industrial contaminants, sewage, and other biologic waste has resulted in exposure to fish and animal borne disease and new, genetically mutated diseases. Even the oceans have become contaminated with bacteria, parasites, and viruses, and their immense size is not enough to dilute these poisons to safe levels.

2. The virus is a reminder to pay attention to our dreams and to those who dream possible futures.

Independence is an illusion. Interdependence is the reality. Human health is tied to the health of the earth. Indigenous prophecy traditions predict a coming time of “purification” and natural disasters. Natural disasters include not only “earth changes” such as floods and earthquakes, but also exposure to harmful forces: political, technological, biologic, and adverse energies attracted or conjured by negative thoughts and actions.

The birth of the white buffalo calf named “Miracle” in Wisconsin in 1994 was a sign of the possibility of spiritual awakening and signaled a time of change. (Kuczka S 2006). The Lakota and other Native American people recognized a connection between Miracle and White Buffalo Calf Woman, an ancient wakan (holy) woman who gave sacred ceremonial gifts and knowledge. As White Buffalo Calf Woman completed her teachings, she walked away and changed into a young buffalo, turning four colors before she disappeared: black, red, yellow, and white, symbolically representing the four directions and the various races of humanity. Miracle also changed her coat into the four colors: born white, then turning black, yellow, and finally red. It was a warning and a call for unity.

A white buffalo birth is exceedingly rare, only one in a million. Yet, Miracle’s birth was followed by an almost impossible series of white buffalo births throughout North America, including South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Kentucky, Texas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, British Columbia, and Manitoba. In August 2006, a white buffalo was born during a lightning storm. Three months later, this same calf was killed by a lightning strike. Elders told me that this was a strong message that the purification was imminent. And it was a reminder that humanity’s best chance of survival is through dedication to spiritual values. (Looking Horse A 2005)

In 2016, Saulteaux Elder and Seer Bob Smoker told me that the Purification is happening during the lifetime of the current generation. According to the Anishinaabe “Prophecy of the Seven Fires,” this is a period when the fate of the world depends on which of two roads the light-skinned people take: the path of technology or the path of spirituality. (Benton-Banai E 1979) I had several long discussions about this prophecy with my dear friend and mentor N’tsukw (Innu Nation) who elaborated that the problem is not technology per se but rather the way it encourages the illusion that we need only technology, not nature, to survive and how technology is tied in with corporate greed, commodification, weaponry, environmental abuse, and social and economic disparity.

I have personally had several warning dreams about the Purification. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, like many I was searching for understanding and relief from anxiety about the state of the world. I carried my sacred pipe into the mountains to fast and pray. During my vigil I heard a message from Mother Earth. “War will not cease until people stop breaking my bones (coal), draining my blood (oil), and taking my breath (natural gas).”

Equally prescient was the dream I had on January 17, 2020, four days before the report of the first corona virus case in the U.S. I was in a restaurant in a tall building at the edge of the sea. As I looked out over the ocean I saw about 50 orca whale dorsal fins, and was at first happy to know there was a huge pod, perhaps a mega pod. But there was something wrong. The fins were not black but pale grayish white and not straight up but drooped over, a known sign of trauma. Then I realized in horror that all of the whales were dead, and soon I could see their decaying bodies floating near the surface. I knew this meant that land, water, and life were in grave danger. If disease was coming to the whales, the great guardians of the sea, then there was a threat to all of us. As the Water Protectors at Standing Rock remind us, “Water is life.” (Jewett C 2019, Willis J 2019)

3. The third lesson is the importance of indigenous and holistic principles of health and balance, such as Miyo-pimatisiwin, the Cree concept of what it means to be alive and well and to thus represent an exemplary life. (Adelson N 2000)

There is no single definition of Miyo-pimatisiwin, as its understanding and interpretation is based on indigenous values and life experiences. For example, my adoptive Dad, Andrew Naytowhow (Cree), expressed this principle through his service as a singer, ceremonialist, counselor to inmates and youth, and former Chief of Sturgeon Lake First Nation. I interpret Miyo-pimatisiwin as

  • Exercise and endurance. This is not the exercise you get on treadmills and ellipticals, but rather exercise and endurance that results from outdoor activities. This is especially appropriate when we think of corona virus. Vitamin D prevents viruses from replicating and modulates immune response. A half hour of mid-day sun exposure produces 10,000 units of Vitamin D. Nature is our greatest healer, and maintaining a healthy environment is at the core of miyo-pimatisiwin.

  • Traditional Cree food, or we can say indigenous food. Most of us don’t live in an environment where moose and muskrat meat are local and readily available. To put it in modern terms, healthy food means fresh, seasonal, local, organic, sustainably and ethically foraged, harvested, hunted, or fished.

  • Balance, moderation, don’t go to extremes.

  • Living according to traditional values and having the freedom to practice culture and spirituality, without government oppression or assaults against indigenous people, lands, and sovereignty. The traditional values are beautifully summarized in the Cree tipi pole teachings. As you put up the tipi or sit within it, you remember that each tipi pole is a spiritual and human “law” (law as cultural principles that create harmonious relationships rather than the the western concept of law as centralized control and threat of punishment). The tipi poles represent

1. Obedience (to tradition)

2. Respect (for all)

3. Humility

4. Happiness

5. Love

6. Faith

7. Kinship

8. Cleanliness (in mind and body)

9. Thankfulness

10. Sharing

11. Strength

12. Good Child Rearing

13. Hope

14. Protection

15. Interdependence

4. The fourth lesson is that this virus is both a physical disease and a symptom of a spiritual disease that, ironically, we can call “social distancing.”

Look at the spiritual law represented by the seventh tipi pole in the tipi pole teaching above. Kinship. We think first of the importance of family, caring for the elders, the children, men respecting women, men and women respecting each other and their unique gifts and responsibilities. Kinship terms are also extended beyond the biologic family as a recognition of the web of relationship, responsibility, and accountability. Thus, a person my parent’s age I might address as “Uncle” or “Aunty”; I might call a young person “nephew” or “niece” and old people are “Grandfather” or “Grandmother.” But kinship also extends to the physical and spiritual world: we are related to the stone, the plant, the animal, the human, and all the elements and aspects of the world. A grasshopper is my relative; mountain, sun, and moon are all respected elders. The spirit of a tree; the spirit of a mythic creature who appears in my dreams are relatives too.

Beaver Sheltering at Home. Photo by Ken Cohen, Prince Albert Park, Cree Territory, Saskatchewan

Yet the world that technology has manufactured, a world of cell phones and computer screens, has broken this fundamental sense of connectedness. People don’t talk; they tweet. Much of humanity, especially non-indigenous societies, has been practicing social distancing for a very long time. The colonial dominance of science-obsessed Western-European thinking and its myth of progress, has infected most of the world’s population.

The kind of social distancing we are practicing now is an absolute requirement if we are to halt the pandemic. But from another perspective, Mother Earth is teaching us—you and me—a lesson, exaggerating a tendency so we can really see it, so we are forced to pay attention to it. The contrasts are stark: the many facets of connection or disconnection. And the contrast of the white noise of pollution that many had gotten used to compared to the relatively clear skies and quiet roads when people stay at home. The animals notice the difference. Flocks of birds return to old nesting areas; bear and wolves re-inhabit original territory in the national parks. If, when the virus has run its course, we go back to the previous lifestyle and values, then humanity is sowing the seeds of its own demise. We need nature and each other to survive.

5. The disease highlights the injustices in U.S. society and the threats to people of color and minority groups.

Indigenous people and people of color are the hardest hit by the corona virus because of pre-existing conditions, and I am not only speaking about the epidemics of diabetes and high blood pressure, but also poverty and PTSD. Poverty and PTSD both affect self-esteem, self-efficacy (the belief that I can better manage my own health) and immunity. The cytokine storm linked with COVID-19 (Coperchini F 2020) presents extra risk for those who already have high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines because of PTSD and depression. (Toft H 2018) Also, socio-economic disparity means lack of health insurance, poor health care services and options, less work-at-home type jobs, more crowded living conditions (raising the risk of infection), and makes it nearly impossible to take time off from work.

Poverty affects both prevention and treatment. If a patient cannot afford the corona virus test, the disease continues to spread and health care is unjustly delayed. Health care becomes wealth-care.

The ugly specter of medical racism also exists, even in these times, in which people of color are profiled and denied equal or necessary treatment. When medical resources are scarce or rationed and doctors have to make quick decisions about who gets treatment and who doesn’t, underlying prejudices may rule decisions.

Native Nations are suffering disproportionate losses because of the pandemic. The largest Indian Nation in the US, the Navajo, with a population of more than 300,000 had, by late May 2020, a higher rate of infection than New York (2,680 per 100,000 compared to 1,890 per 100,000). Some smaller tribes are suffering even greater per capita rates of infection, with morality rates ranging from six to ten times that of whites. (Lakhani N 2020) Elders, including traditional spiritual leaders, are particularly vulnerable, and each death represents not only a personal tragedy but a loss of irreplaceable knowledge and tradition. (Morales L 2020)

6. The disease reminds us of the importance of adaptability, including how traditional indigenous medicines must sometimes adapt to changing circumstances.

New prayers, new songs, perhaps even new healing practices and ceremonies are emerging, and some old practices will be revitalized because of the health challenges and losses due to the virus. The pains and hopes of the people are already being expressed in art, as in protective masks embroidered or painted with four direction symbols, Ojibwe flower patterns, or other signs of indigenous creativity. The First Peoples of the Americas have survived sudden terrible epidemics carried by Europeans, including smallpox, malaria, cholera, the plague, tuberculosis, the flu, and general lowered immunity from PTSD brought on by racism, oppression, and abuse. Spirituality, lessons from elders and wisdom keepers, and connection to nature remain keys to resilience and survival.

First Peoples’ medicine is powerful and can adapt. Smudging, cleansing with the smoke of a plant such as sage, cedar, or sweetgrass is a traditional form of spiritual purification, and it is considered helpful to smudge and pray over any medicine one takes, including prescription or over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen. However, during the pandemic, it is essential to limit any smudging indoors. I cannot emphasize this enough. The carbon molecule bonds to specific immune chemicals that protect the body against viruses. (Crane-Godreau M 2020) This also helps explain why COVID-19 is severe among smokers or those who have a history of exposure to carbon particulates in air pollution. (Conticini E 2020)

I believe it is important to use what is helpful from science; civilization is needed to cure the diseases of civilization. Diabetes is epidemic in Indian country, and although traditional indigenous diet may be a powerful preventive and adjunctive therapy, many would die without insulin. In the current pandemic, traditional plant-based medicines may be helpful, but, in my opinion, should not substitute for necessary medical interventions, social distancing, face masks, and hand-washing. (Wallace A 2020).

Here it is important to remind those unfamiliar with indigenous culture that First Peoples herbal medicines are neither naturopathy nor western herbalism. It is the indigenous healer’s dream connection with the particular plant, the reciprocal offerings made to the plant, the method of gathering and preparation, and the empowering prayers or songs that turn the herb into a medicine. To broadcast the plant usage publicly would offend the associated Manitou (Spiritual Power) and decrease, dilute, or interfere with the power of this medicine.

As an example of the difference between an herbal cure and an indigenous plant medicine, I will share a teaching I received many years ago from a medicine man. To preserve anonymity and protect a medicine that was discussed privately, I will substitute a different plant for the one he actually shared.

The elder has a deep connection with willow bark, a medicine that has long been in his family and passed on to him by his grandfather. One day a friend visited him and asked the elder about his use of the plant. They went outside to a willow tree on his property. The elder took out a pocket knife and cut off a piece of the bark while explaining its properties and how to prepare it.

Later that day, the elder broke out in a terrible rash on both his arms. He applied salves, but the next day it was still there. Then he realized what he had done, or rather neglected. He had not prayed or made a tobacco offering before peeling the bark. He went outside, apologized to the tree, offered tobacco, and within minutes the rash was completely gone.

Because of the spiritual nature of Native American herbal traditions, there are major differences between indigenous and western botanical traditions, including plant usage, application, and criteria of efficacy. Just as shamanism is not Native American healing, so herbalism is not Native American plant medicine.

7. The seventh story and lesson of this virus is that life is based on the breath, air, and wind, and to be healthy we need to live in a way and create a society that respects this most fundamental gift from Creator.

COVID-19 is a severe respiratory disease that can drop oxygen levels from the norm of near 100% to about 50%. For some, in the beginning stages there may be few symptoms, a form of silent hypoxia that starves the body of oxygen.

Breath and wind play an important role in original teachings from Turtle Island (an indigenous name for North America) and among indigenous nations worldwide. In the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) creation story “Gitchi Manitou [Creator] took the four parts of Mother Earth and blew them into a Sacred Megis [Cowrie] Shell. From the union of the Four Sacred Elements and his breath, man was created.” The general understanding of the word Anishinabe is that it means “good humans” or “people lowered down [from the spiritual realm].” However, the great Anishinaabe educator Basil Johnston noted that the word “Anishinaabe” literally means “Beings Made Out of Nothing,” a reference to the mystery of the divine breath. (Johnston 1990)

Dine’é (Navajo) tradition describes nilch’i,a sacred wind that animates the first human beings, swirling out the finger tips to create the patterns seen in fingerprints. (McNeley JK 1997) In the Lakota language, Niya, the breath of life, is one of the aspects of the soul. (Brown J 2010) The word for breath, ni, is also part of the word for the purification ceremony/practice known as the Stone People Lodge (or Sweat Lodge), Inipi: a contraction of the words ni and tipi. The Lodge is a tipi for the life breath.

Because breath is what allows and gives power to our words, we must always be cautious in how we speak. A person with strong breath can help or harm. Breath is also our link with all of nature and all ages. We breathe the same recycled air as the dinosaurs. Breath is also a reminder of the importance of generosity. We don’t own it; we receive air and we give it back, not holding on to it, not treating it as a commodity. A pandemic that affects the breath may be a symptom of a break in these sacred links and lessons.

Healthy breathing is in our genes; it was necessary for survival for most of human history. Animals hear a person who breathes shallowly and quickly, and they smell the stress chemicals he/she produces. A quick breather is a poor hunter and not able to provide for the family. By contrast, slow breathing makes us more sensitive. The mind become like a quiet pond—the slightest breeze, the slightest “disturbance in the Force,” is sensed, like ripples on that pond.

Breath is a spiritual power. When a power is taken for granted or not respected, it leaves. What is the lesson of a disease that coats the lung’s air sacs so that we can no longer take in and be nurtured by Creator’s gift?


More About Quick Breathing

Dysfunctional breathing seems to be epidemic in the U.S., especially rapid and shallow breathing, known as “hyperventilation syndrome”, which may affect as much as 25% of Americans. (Fried R 1993; Boulding R 2016) Quick breathing can worsen pre-existing conditions such as PTSD, depression, pain, diabetes, asthma, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), and high blood pressure. Also, because quick breathing delivers less oxygen to the cells, it has especially severe effects on the most oxygen-hungry organ—the brain, contributing to confusion, headaches, and neurological disease.

The most common cause of hyperventilation is stress. The average at-rest breathing rate in the US is about 17 breaths per minute. During panic attacks and various disease conditions, this can rise to more than 20 breaths per minute. This is often called normal, but it is not. A relaxed person who is able to control their biological and mental reactions to stress breathes about 7 breaths per minute when at rest. But this is increasingly rare.

Quick breathing is also linked with mechanical and postural imbalances, such as poor alignment, tension in the abdomen or chest, and locked knees. To stand with locked knees, or walk while locking one knee after the next, is common, yet it is not natural.

To better understand relationships between posture, breathing, and indigenous culture, I often recommend that my students try an experiential exercise that I call “the Paleolithic Posture.” (Cohen K 2006) Stand up and sense how you are breathing. Now place your palms on your abdomen and sense the degree of movement that occurs there naturally as you breathe. You should feel the abdomen gently expanding as you inhale and effortlessly releasing as you exhale. Next, lock your knees. Notice if your breathing rate has changed. What about the depth of breathing? Is your abdomen still moving the same way and with the same ease? Once again sense the breath with your knees bent, so you are clear about the difference. You probably discovered that locked knees result in quick breathing. Stress can cause quick breathing, but it also goes in the other direction. Locked knees and poor posture produce quick breathing which causes or worsens stress.

Obviously, we breathe more slowly when the knees are slightly bent. There is an equally important but more subtle effect of bent versus locked knees. Stand barefoot on the ground. Notice the feeling of the ground, the texture and temperature. Now, lock your knees. Has your sensitivity changed? When the knees are locked we become literally “up tight” and lose our sense of grounding, both physically and psychologically. Going back to the hunter analogy, effective hunters know that you must walk with knees bent. When the knees are bent, you move silently through the bush. And bent knees enhance sensitivity in the bottoms of the feet. You can feel the ground, especially through a moccasin, and quickly withdraw the foot when it steps on a branch, lest the branch break and you scare away the deer that would have fed your family.

We all love foot massage, but probably the main reason why we have so many sensitive nerves in the bottoms of our feet is that our ability to feel the ground has been essential for survival for most of human history. To put it simply, bent knees and slow breathing go together, generally improve health, and help us reclaim the wisdom of our ancestors.


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Words Offered With Respect by Kenneth Cohen, ᒪᐢᑲᐧ ᓴᑲᐧᐦᑕᒧᐤ

Indigenous Health & Cultural Education

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