In recent weeks, Armand Minthorn led two traditional Washut religious services for elders at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation longhouse. Washut is the traditional religion of many Northwest Native Americans.
But now, everything is different.
“We’re all in a sense warriors,” Minthorn says. “We’re at war. There’s people — sad to say — there’s people dying all around us.”
Tribes across the Northwest have had to close down their casinos. Many tribal members on the Umatilla reservation are working remotely and the economic slowdown will affect the amount of money available for the tribal government in the 2021 budget. The tribal government is closely tracking the number of COVID-19 cases on the reservation and in ceded territory.
The coronavirus pandemic is also crushing to many traditions and religions trying to mourn their dead — no matter the cause of death. But for Native Americans in the Northwest, normal funerals can last two to three days and involve physical contact among tribal members.
Now, tribes have to abbreviate their traditional services.
Rural Native communities across the country have more people with underlying health concerns. And this virus is especially worrying for tribes because it puts elders — especially revered in Native culture — at high risk.
“They’re the ones that correct us, discipline us, encourage us, and teach us our traditions and our customs,” Minthorn says.
Before the pandemic, ceremonies lasted for days and included drumming, singing and a handshaking ceremony.
Minthorn says the shaking hands gesture “shows that we’re one people, we’re one family and we’ll get through this loss with each other.”
Showing photos and clothing of the loved one was part of the traditional “last cry” ceremony.
“And it’s then that the people open their hearts and let the hot water out of their eyes,” Minthorn says. “Let the cry out. Let the hurt out. Let the frustration out. So that a person can move on and move forward.”
Brian LaFollette is the owner of Burns Mortuary, in Pendleton, Oregon, and works with tribes.
“They actually embrace death, where we hide from it,” LaFollette says. “It’s a process that they go through. The worst thing about it is that after the service they have a meal — can’t even have a meal anymore.”
Minthorn says the generations that follow will remember how survivors got through the time of the virus.
“And through song and ceremony we ask our Creator to give us the courage and the direction we need in our life to continue with that work,” Minthorn says. “And that person that goes back to the Indian land, that person’s work is done.”
He says those left behind still have work to do.
NOTE: Music in the audio version of this story was composed by Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation tribal member Marcus Luke.