“Repatriate space” this National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Boozhoo Niindinawemaaganidok! Mino-giizhigad. (Hello All-my-relations! It is a good day.) As we celebrate National Native AIDS Awareness Day, it is good that we are making progress in acknowledging and respecting Indigenous ways of knowing. Being a descendant and growing up in Bemidji, Minnesota, I recognize that my Indigenous experience will be unique from other people’s. Please forgive any mistakes that I make here; they are not my teachers’ mistakes, but my own.

The Indigenous people of Turtle Island are not a monolith. We’ve been in this region for at least 23,000 years. Indigenous communities survive and thrive to this day because there are significant culturally congruent, community empowering practices throughout. That is what you call tenure. Regardless, our communities have been mostly excluded from the mainstream capitalist economy. Health and social services for Indigenous communities have always been difficult to find, inconsistently funded and onerous to qualify for —– especially during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. Both of which vastly and disproportionately impact BIPOC communities like ours.

Capitalism/colonialism in the United States has been detrimental to all, but most disproportionately to Indigenous people by many measures. Cultural marginalization, incidences of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, suicide and violence against Indigenous women have been steadily increasing since the inception of colonization. We see the effects of these disproportionate harms ro Indigenous people in chaotic drug use including addiction, overdose and transmission of diseases that did not previously exist on Turtle Island. Since the dispossession of Indigenous lands, monoculture agricultural practices have led to deforestation, as well as increased forest fires and alarming extinctions of native species. Famine, sickness and homelessness are what propaganda tells us to fear under socialism; yet we are experiencing these now under capitalism/colonialism. “Before 1492, Indigenous people had not experienced homelessness” is a popular slogan in this area related to housing. 

I call you “niindinawemaaganidok” because we are family on this earth, and we are all in this together. Indigenous communities in my area and elsewhere realize that we all are responsible to one another because everything is “alive” in a sense. For example, local author Brenda Child notes that Indigenous women of the area were the ones to make deals and negotiate with French fur traders largely due to Indigenous women’s authority and spiritual connection to bodies of water. If the French men wanted to work in Indian Country, they would have to work with Indigenous women as equals. Brenda Child notes how revered Indigenous women are in our communities for their wisdom and community empowering presence, going on to note that the word “Mindimooyenh” means more than Elder Woman but “One who holds things together.”

This is why Indigenous women are at the forefront of our HIV/AIDS response and prevention at Harm Reduction Sisters. Our message today is this:

It’s imperative that public health policies and practices be inclusive of, support, focus and enhance the current and future efforts of Indigenous people. Experience shows us  that if we are going to use harm reduction methods within the syringe services programs in our BIPOC communities, the management of those programs should be BIPOC as well (specifically Indigenous women). We also know through experience that new federal funding for harm reduction services and SSPs should include “syringe and smoking equipment distribution,” which have been banned due to governmental policies, even though they have been certified as an effective public health measure.

In Duluth, Minnesota, Harm Reduction Sisters is led mostly by Native women. It is through their experience, respect and wisdom that Harm Reduction Sisters prioritizes its services within the Indigenous population of Northern Minnesota while including everyone who wants to participate. Indigenous expertise is doing good work to validate and empower participants, rather than to prescribe and enforce. Our Indigenous participants also generously take on active leadership roles distributing these important, lifesaving supplies in their communities, for which we cannot express enough gratitude.

Decolonization is not a metaphor. Repatriate space, power and authority to Indigenous folk when possible. Trust us.

For more about the work of Harm Reduction Sisters, visit their website: harmreductionsisters.org/. For more resources about HIV testing, treatment and prevention, and how we can #StopHIVTogether this National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, click here.