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Hit hard by the pandemic, Oneida Indian Nation brings message of remembrance with 'Passage of Peace'

A shot of the "Passage of Peace" art installation. (Oneida Nation)
A shot of the "Passage of Peace" art installation. (Oneida Nation)

Nearly two years since the pandemic first hit the U.S., Indigenous Americans and Alaska Natives continue to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

According to the Indian Health Service, Native Americans have more than 3.5 times the infection rate and are four times more likely to be hospitalized than white Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to “persisting racial inequity and historical trauma” as to why the health and socioeconomic disparities exist among tribal communities.

To get the public’s attention, the Oneida Indian Nation — which is located in central New York — unveiled seven large illuminating tipis in an art installation called “Passage of Peace.”

“We chose the tipi because it’s a recognizable, very universal symbol of Native American identity. It also represents the traditions of Indigenous nations in the Western part of the country, many of whom have experienced tremendous loss these last two years,” says Ray Halbritter, leader of the Oneida Indian Nation.

Located on Oneida Indian Nation lands, the tipis were unveiled in conjunction with Native American Heritage Month and will be in place through December.

Although the tipi pays homage to Western Tribal Nations, it was also chosen to reflect the seventh generation principle.

“We’re told in our culture to make decisions as a people, as a government,” Halbritter says, “considering the decisions affect onto the seventh generation to the future of our children.”

Halbritter has been personally impacted by COVID-19, pointing to his family and friends who have come down with the illness.

“One day you’re talking to them on the phone. The next day they’re calling you from a hospital,” he says. “The next day they’re telling you they’re feeling better, and the next day they pass away.”

COVID-19 amplified health inequities in Native communities, he says. For instance, Native people have a greater chance of having diabetes than any other racial group in the country. It’s equally the same for life expectancy, infant mortality and suicide rates.

But despite the pandemic taking a disproportionate toll on Native communities, Halbritter remains hopeful. Over the past decade or so, he’s worked to help Native people gain access to resources.

“We now have resources to be able to do the kind of things we were never able to do. We weren’t able to hire lobbyists, lawyers and people who could advocate,” he says. “It didn’t give us the ability to access decision makers the way we can now.”

Marcelle Hutchins produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Hutchins also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.