Pandemic Challenges for Native American Arts and Culture

Photo credit: Used with permission of John Haworth

January 31, 2020—I recently had a dialogue with my long-time friend and colleague, John Haworth, about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the arts and culture of Native Americans. Following our conversation, I asked John to write something that I could share with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections.

John, whom you may recall from a previous post, is Senior Executive Emeritus, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. A member of the Cherokee Nation, he has lectured and written extensively about cultural policy and Native American issues over the years. John currently teaches a museum management course at New York University.

Guest Post by John Haworth

The recent New York Times report, which was headlined “Tribal Elders Dying from Pandemic Causing a Cultural Crisis for American Indians,” tells an especially poignant story about the health and cultural crisis in Native American communities resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. As the article articulated, the virus is “robbing tribes of precious bonds and repositories of language and tradition.”

A month before the article appeared, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report confirming that COVID-19 incidence is higher among American Indians and Alaskan Natives than among other demographic groups. The CDC has been on record since last summer that Native Americans have had the highest rates of risk for COVID-19—3.5 times greater infection rates than of non-Hispanic Whites. For Native communities, racial inequality and historical trauma weigh heavily in the current global crisis.

Certainly, the pandemic has presented extraordinary challenges for the entire cultural sector, with tribal museums and Native American community-based cultural centers having been hit especially hard. With annual Indian art markets cancelled, and performance and exhibition opportunities curtailed, the loss of income for Native artists (and their families) has been severe. With our tourism economy in absolute shambles, there are major challenges for places with extensive Native American cultural programs, including Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, and Santa Fe. Though cultural organizations are doing their best to keep producing and presenting cultural activities online, the loss of income for Native artists is severe. 

It is within this context that Native American artists and cultural organizations have continued to make and produce art over the past year. Despite these obstacles and day-to-day challenges for all of us, Native artists have been remarkably resilient. Informed and imaginative cultural and civic leaders are certainly determined to move Native communities forward.

It is a hopeful sign that in the first week of the Biden Administration, specific actions have been taken and decisions made that impact tribal communities, such as the revoking of the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline; reaffirming tribal sovereignty; rulings related to protecting federal lands and the Artic refuge, and greater attention to the distribution and access of vaccines, as well as healthcare delivery services.

In addition, assuming that U.S. Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico is confirmed as Secretary of the Interior (whose portfolio includes National Parks Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Smithsonian Institution), she will become the first Native American to hold a cabinet-level position in the history of this nation. Coupled with that is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which delivered a victory for Native Americans by upholding U.S. treaty obligations. These significant factors, connected to tribal sovereignty and indigenous rights, will serve to animate and inform Native cultural production moving forward. 

Earlier this year, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, announced the promotion of Kevin Gover, the long-time director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to Under Secretary for Museums and Culture. Having two senior posts at the Smithsonian held by an African American and a Native American should make significant contributions to our national cultural discourse. 

During the pandemic and calls for racial and social justice, cultural leaders, artists, foundation executives and the media have paid far greater attention to the issues related to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. Several foundations, including several based in New York City, have shifted their funding priorities accordingly to support more diverse programs in the cultural sector, including support to cultural organizations of color. These champions include Ford Foundation for its leadership commitment to diversity and challenging inequality; Robert Sterling Clark Foundation for its “Trust Based” philanthropy and advocating for streamlining funding processes; New York Community Trust most especially for its work in arts education; Mellon Foundation for providing $200 Million to the cultural sector devastated by the pandemic and its ongoing commitment to Native American perspectives in museums; Bloomberg Philanthropies for its work to broaden audiences and increase access; and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for its commitment to support Native American oral history archives throughout the country.    

And over this past year, several NYC cultural organizations have stepped up their commitments to Native American arts and culture, including:

This is a powerful affirmation of why Native culture is important to all of us, no matter what our cultural backgrounds, as we move forward beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, the contested American election, and the events of January 6, 2021.

Inspired by Native culture and artists, may the days ahead be a time of resilience and healing.

Thank you, John, for your informative, insightful and inspiring guest post. To the readers of Arts & Culture Connections, I would like to know what you think about this issue. Please share your comments and thoughts below.

7 thoughts on “Pandemic Challenges for Native American Arts and Culture

  1. Very impressed by the increasing number of opportunities for exchange with and about Native communities. Most especially through the arts. Strong advocates, like John Haworth, are essential to the broader understanding and support of Native peoples and communities whether in Indian Country or in our urban areas.

  2. A good read. Thank you John: great to know you are still rocking. I totally enjoyed your art and community engagement class at NYU many many moons ago. Be well.
    —Victor L. Davson.

  3. Thanks John Haworth for making this incredible news and information about Native arts and artists available during this political, cultural, and health pandemic! Your information is encouraging and informative!! Thanks so much!

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