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Video by Arizona PBS

Indigenous communities move powwows online during coronavirus

PHOENIX – When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted public life, some Native Americans found a way to safely host traditional powwows by moving them online.

In many indigenous communities, powwows are celebrations of culture, in which tribes gather to share art, stories, food, song, dance and each other's company.

But the ongoing pandemic has made it difficult to hold these gatherings safely – in person, anyway. Officials for the Navajo Nation, which has been hit hard by the novel coronavirus, set curfews and asked 173,000 tribal members living on the reservation to stay home to limit the spread of the disease. Nearly 300 Navajos have died of COVID-19, and the number of confirmed cases has reached over 6,000.

That's where the Facebook group "Social Distance Powwow" comes in. Founded by Stephanie Hebert, Dan Simonds and Whitney Rencountre, the group brings virtual powwows to life.

"Native peoples have been gathering and celebrating for eons — we congregate and we celebrate. That's powwows. They're exceptional social events," Hebert said.

The group, with more than 190,000 members, also extends beyond powwows to create a space where Native Americans share personal stories of graduations and other life milestones, the sacrifices of front-line workers, and individual struggles and triumphs.

Even in the face of a global pandemic, Hebert was adamant that such events should continue.

"We've had this taken away, but we will not be deterred. We'll find a way," she said.

During this time in particular, online powwows serve as touchpoints around a common tragedy: For many indigenous communities, long-standing disparities, such a limited access to health care and a high prevalence of underlying conditions within the community, have exacerbated the crisis.

Access to running water remains a challenge on the Navajo Nation reservation, which makes frequent handwashing and sanitation difficult. The illness also has shown severe impacts on those with preexisting health conditions, including asthma and diabetes, which are found disproportionately among Native Americans. Health officials have also said that social distancing may be a challenge in homes with multiple generations under one roof, as many Navajo live.

"Very sadly, several of our members have reported that they've lost family to the virus," Hebert said. "And another thing that dancers do is we pray. We pray for healing. We pray for strength. And we pray for our communities, and we pray over our people."

The online group has gained membership rapidly since the group's formation in mid-March. According to organizers, nearly 60,000 people took part in one early online powwow.

Additionally, because in-person sales of arts and crafts are almost impossible, the group's site hosts a marketplace to promote indigenous artists.

"It's time for us to be seen and heard, and that's kind of what this movement has brought, it's a chance for us to be seen and heard and people are seeing it and feeling it," Simonds said.

This report originally appeared on Arizona PBS' Cronkite News.

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