Culture and COVID-19 reponses
In this series, AMS Healthcare addresses the challenges facing healthcare today – particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The AMS Community promotes compassionate care, development of the leadership needed to realize the promise of technology and the understanding of how our medical history influences the future of our healthcare. A new piece will be posted every Friday on Healthy Debate.
For the Anishinaabek of Manitoulin Island in northeastern Ontario, the “original people” of Turtle Island (North America), the often-reviled Indian Act has allowed for an unexpected avenue of protection against COVID-19.
In the Anishinaabek legend The Theft of Fire, Nanabozho (the Great Hare) is a supernatural being who travels across a sea to retrieve fire for Nokomis (grandmother). There, kiwenzhiinh (older man) protects it. Nanabozho, in the form of an unassuming bunny, attracts the attention of kiwenzhiinh’s daughters, who take him into their dwelling. Kiwenzhiinh cautions his daughters against befriending stranger-beings since they may be spirits. In response, the daughters raise doubts since a cute bunny presents no danger. Nanabozho is placed by the fire to dry and catches on fire, then flees, returning to Nokomis with it.
This legend tells of how the Anishinaabek came to possess fire and a reminder of this takes place every summer when a scorched rabbit (rabbits with their darker summer furs) reappears. On the surface, this legend describes the fire’s arrival; however, on a deeper level, it reveals the importance of family and elders, the need to be cautious of strangers and the origin of fire as an original livelihood technology for humans.
Fire also plays a role as an intervention for sickness. In their oral history, a mysterious illness associated with evil spirits afflicted the Anishinaabek in the 1700s, and as a remedy, the island lit fires to rid the spirits. Frederick William Major, an island school teacher and amateur historian, in 1934 recorded (with some scepticism), “…a long time ago, evil spirits came upon the island causing much sickness and trouble. During a dry season the natives undertook to burn out the evil spirits by setting fire to the woods. The fire swept over the whole island leaving desolation and ruin everywhere.”
A new form of technology affects First Nations livelihoods: colonial policies. Policies such as the Indian Act of Canada, particularly in its first 100 years of implementation (1869-1969), functioned, according to historian John Milloy, as a nationalist “aggressive colonizing project of assimilation.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call’s to Action #18 recognizes, “that the current state of Aboriginal health in Canada is a direct result of previous Canadian government policies, including residential schools.”
But in the era of COVID-19, the Indian Act provides an unanticipated framework for public health interventions for those with resources for implementation. Section 81 (1) (a) empowers First Nation Band Councils “to provide for the health of residents on the reserve and to prevent the spreading of contagious and infectious diseases.”
There are First Nations that have operationalized these powers. From April 9 to June 9 this year, Gimaa (Chief) Peltier of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island declared a state of emergency limiting off-First Nation travel for essential purposes, and limited entry to residents, closing its borders to the outside. According to Peltier, “We must protect our elders, knowledge and language keepers, children and families and take necessary measures to ensure their safety”.
The Whitefish River First Nation passed a trespassing bylaw to enforce restricted access of non-residents. This bylaw mostly restricts access of cottagers who lease First Nation land, since in the words of the band manager, “Seventy-five per cent of our residents have compromised immune conditions. One case of COVID-19 will have such an impact that will be very difficult to overcome.”
The oral history of setting Manitoulin Island on fire in the 1700s bears comparative insight. In response to sickness in the 1700s, the Anishinaabek sought refuge, presumably in a safe place within their traditional territory. In 2020, this option is not applicable given land cessions, and they have resorted to limiting population movements.
There is a further insight with Theft of Fire, specifically First Nations rationales to COVID-19 responses. The tale speaks of the importance of family and elders and the need to be cautious of outsiders that may cause harm. The quotes cited above from First Nations leadership reveal tenets such as prioritizing the health of the collective and Elders.
Thus, First Nations responses to COVID-19 offer comparative insights into the role of culture in public health interventions.