Given that Thanksgiving, by its very name, is a holiday centered on gratitude, where does that leave us as American Indians this year?
Many of us already approach Thanksgiving with levels of dismay tied to longstanding holiday-origin myths and its role as a reminder of the legacy of colonization’s genocide, land theft, and assault on our culture. This year we’re dealing with even more as individuals, families, and communities. Simply put, 2020’s pandemic, police brutality, civil unrest, and election disputes have highlighted stubborn disparities that continue to impact our lives. Yet they also have shined a spotlight on our progress and resilience.
American Indians have the highest rates for COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota, according to Minnesota Department of Health statistics through Nov. 18. The department also notes that “of all Indigenous individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, 15 percent are hospitalized, the highest rate of any of the race groups with data collected.”
Nationally, more than 2,200 Indigenous people have died of COVID-19, according to a report this month from the APM Research Lab, which notes that Indigenous people are 3.2 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites.
A few other statistics highlight continued challenges facing our communities:
While less than 2% of Minnesota’s population is Indigenous, nearly one in four of those experiencing homelessness are Indigenous.
The number of American Indians filing for unemployment in October 2020 was triple the number the same time a year ago, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
The achievement gap for American Indian students in Minnesota remains significant, with just 31% of fourth-graders deemed proficient in reading and 25% of eighth-graders proficient in math. In 2019, the high school graduation rate for American Indians was about 50%, compared with a statewide average of about 84% for all students.
It’s hard to be thankful when confronted by such statistics, but we will pause this week to appreciate the work being done by so many to make progress: teachers, health care workers, faith leaders, community activists, elders, veterans, and volunteers, among others. The list is long, and we are honored to play a role in these efforts.
In 2020, American Indian OIC started its fifth decade of helping hundreds of students and clients learn, grow, and find careers through individualized support. We are thankful for their trust.
In 2020, American Indian OIC opened its doors to another community organization after its beautiful new home was destroyed by fire during the uprising in South Minneapolis this summer. We are thankful for partners who share our passion for preparing young people for a brighter tomorrow.
In 2020, American Indian OIC hosted several get-out-the-vote events, including a powerful session that featured American Indian Movement escorts to the polls. Voter participation this year in Minnesota jumped an average of nearly 20% in areas with high Native populations. Some areas, including precincts around Red Lake, approached a 50% increase.
Mary Kunesh-Podein, of Standing Rock Lakota descent, will become the first Native woman to serve in the Minnesota Senate while Yankton Sioux Tribe member Heather Keeler of Moorhead will join Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, in the Minnesota House.
Nationally, the Native vote proved crucial in states such as Arizona, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and a record-breaking six American Indian candidates were elected to Congress in 2020. We are thankful for those who believe in democracy and the power of the ballot box to move us toward our nation’s ideals.
So, all in all, 2020 has been a tough, painful year, yet we are thankful. We are resilient. It’s how we roll. Happy Thanksgiving.
Joe Hobot is president and CEO of American Indian OIC in Minneapolis.