Family, Ceremony, Medicine and Humor: How the Puyallup Tribe Survives Pandemics

Former Puyallup Tribal Chairwoman Ramona Bennett says love and humor play a big role in the resilience that have helped Puyallup families survive over the years. This is a photo of Bennett’s mom and grandma, Gertrude McKinney Brown Church (1907-1991) and Catherine Jackson McKinney Alexis, who was born in the mid-1800s. Photo courtesy of Ramona Bennett.

By Rosemary Ponnekanti, Puyallup Tribal News Correspondent

COVID-19 has struck at the heart of Indian Country. The novel coronavirus has affected Native Americans and Alaska Natives at a rate 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic white people, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Locally, in Pierce County, American Indians/Alaska Natives make up 1.6 percent of confirmed cases, despite only making up 1.1 percent of the population. It’s a disease that is devastatingly disproportionate.

Yet, of those Pierce County cases, only .9 percent of deaths are Native. That’s still way too high. But it’s far lower proportionally than, say, for whites, who account for 72.4 percent of the deaths but make up only 65.6 percent of the population.

In other words, the Puyallup Tribe is showing its resilience to this pandemic – just as it has to pandemics throughout modern history. Colonial diseases like smallpox and measles, 20th-century epidemics like the so-called Spanish flu, tuberculosis (TB), alcoholism and cholera, more recent pandemics like AIDS, the “Hong Kong” flu and SARS have been deadly to this and many tribes. Yet the Puyallup people has survived them all, drawing on enduring strengths like family, ceremony, traditional medicine and plain old humor.

“For Native peoples, if we continue to practice our ceremonies, ways and traditional medicines, we have a connection to the spirit world,” said Puyallup Tribal Cultural Director Connie McCloud. “That’s what sets us apart.”

Plants, teas and other traditional medicine

“Population-wise, small pox and measles in the early 1800s wiped out 90 percent of the Puyallup and surrounding Native communities,” said Brandon Reynon, Assistant Director of the Tribe’s Historic Preservation Department. “There was a massive die-off. Capt. George Vancouver described ‘abandoned villages,’ and those belonging to the Sxwəbabš (pronounced sk-WHUH-babsh) tribe, near present-day Gig Harbor, were wiped out by the 1830s. By 1854, only 400 Puyallup people were left.”

At the time, Native people had no immunity or treatment for European diseases. But they did have traditional ways that helped them survive, Reynon said.

“I imagine our ancestors recognized right away that those pandemics, like many that followed, were especially hurtful to the very old and the very young,” he said. “I imagine they would have known to quarantine the sick, and to keep Elders safely apart.”

And Native folks also had something white folks did not: traditional medicine.

“Even though they were banned and punished for using it, they kept on,” McCloud said. “They didn’t tell anyone –  they just did it.”

McCloud’s own great-grandmother Ellas Kitsap was a healer. The daughter of Chief Kitsap, she was married off as a teenager to protect her, but she kept up her practice of traditional medicine.

“I remember Elders telling me they would drive people to see her, behind closed doors,” McCloud said.

Now, McCloud is keeping up the practice.

Under her direction, the Cultural Department (declared an essential service) prepares hundreds of care packages containing traditional teas, huckleberries, elderberries and other traditional foods important for health. And they work.

“My aunt, who is in her 70s, remembers Elders telling her that the reason they lived so long was that they drank prince’s pine tea every day,” McCloud said. “So I sent her some. It was the first time she’d tried it, and now she says it must be working, because she hasn’t gotten sick. Despite the devastation, despite losing so many healers, our people were able to keep this knowledge and today we continue to learn more about it.”

Family and humor serve as good medicine, too

Family support is crucial to resilience – though during some pandemics it was not always easy.

Former Tribal Chairwoman Ramona Bennett has experienced that first-hand.

Bennett’s mother, born in 1907, was still a child when the so-called Spanish flu hit Tacoma in 1918. A pandemic that would leave between 50 million and 100 million dead around the world, it was particularly vicious at the Cushman Indian School, a boarding school where Native children from around the region were often forced to go. At least 10 students died of the flu, removed from their homes and families.

Bennett’s mother attended the school, and told stories of horror.

“When a child died, they would roll them up in a sheet and take them home,” Bennett said. “But often, when they reached that cabin, everyone there was already dead. Nobody had any idea this disease was so fast and widespread.”

Bennett also points out that forcing Indian children into boarding school not only disrupted their own family life but gave them a violent, angry blueprint for how to bring up their own children. Traditional tribal family life, as lived out pre-settlers in communal longhouses with teaching Elders, learning children and caring, hard-working adults, was replaced by European-enforced isolation and loss of culture.

Other 20th-century pandemics brought their own disruption. From the 1930s to the 1950s, TB ravaged communities around the world. In the Northwest, Native children with TB from as far away as Alaska were transported to the Cushman Indian Hospital (the former boarding school building) which operated through 1959 on land where the Puyallup Tribe’s new Emerald Queen Casino now stands.

“If you came here, it was because your family or Elders had likely passed away,” McCloud said. “They were shipped far away from their traditional foods, their loving families, nobody spoke their language. And they were subjected to experimental treatment, like automatic tonsil removal.”

Ironically, points out Bennett, it was the children with TB who did stay home who were the ones to continue their language and customs  – a pandemic silver lining.

Now, a century after the Cushman School closed and with tribal schools flourishing, family life is again one thing that helps Puyallups survive pandemics. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, families check on each other, drop off food to those in quarantine, care for others’ children.

Bennett names the pandemic of alcoholism, of which she herself is a survivor – and sugar addiction. But she also names the one thing that Native people have always had to get them through tough times: Humor.

“That’s the only way Indians have survived pandemics and genocide,” Bennett said wryly. “My mother would always make jokes about why the nuns were so strict about boarding school children keeping their hands above the covers in bed at night. She got beaten for it, but she made everyone laugh. When the Creator made Indians, I think he must have sprinkled on extra humor, because he knew we’d be going through such a lot.”

Ceremony and spiritual strength

Obviously, today, people have the benefit of knowing biologically how diseases spread. When the COVID-19 outbreak began in the United States, the Puyallup Tribal Council acted quickly to quarantine Elders, cancel events, close schools and declare COVID-19 a public health emergency. It also temporarily closed both of its casinos and trimmed non-essential government services for a couple of months.  

Throughout the pandemic, Puyallup families have been staying home, wearing masks, socially-distancing and avoiding crowds.

McCloud said it’s part of a deeper resilience factor: Spiritual connection.

“In early days, keeping separate was part of our spiritual strength,” she explains. “We pray, we meditate, we look for answers, we go to the mountain or the water and ask for direction. These were and are all practices to help us seek balance in daily life, and it helped keep us strong during pandemics.”

Those practices continue, with seasonal ceremonies and food traditions like the recent huckleberry picking – made safely possible thanks to gift cards and camping locations organized by McCloud’s department.

“You have hundreds of Native people continuing to practice our Tribal sovereignty and resilience,” she said. “Those practices set us apart in that we have that spiritual connection to the world around us and to other human beings. That’s our greatest gift.”