Native American tribes enforce mask mandates regardless of state bans

As sovereign nations, Indigenous groups are using their authority to make their own rules to protect students and teachers

Native American tribes across the handful of US states with bans on school mask mandates have asserted their powers as sovereign nations to defy the orders, with some also implementing their own testing and vaccine directives for tens of thousands of students and faculty in schools on their reservations as Covid-19 cases surge.

Under the US constitution, federally recognized tribes, such as the Navajo Nation and the Cherokee Nation, have self-governing authority, and so have been able to implement mask mandates despite the statewide bans.

Jason Dropik, board president of the National Indian Education Association and the head of the Indian community school in Wisconsin, said the majority of Native communities he had heard from in states with these bans have implemented mask mandates.

The reasoning, he explained, often had to do with the fact that Indigenous Americans have had to deal with a disproportionately high death toll from Covid. According to an analysis released in February, one in every 475 Native Americans has died since the pandemic started – a greater proportion of any other demographic in the country.

“When we have loss, and we have it every year, even outside of a pandemic, but when you increase that amount of loss, there are ways of being that just don’t continue to be taught, and that can be lost completely,” said Dropik.

“It’s not solely a matter of someone’s life, which is in and of itself hugely impactful, but also those ways of being, cultural traditions, language and work that also sometimes pass with our Native speakers.”

State leaders in Oklahoma, Utah, Arizona, Iowa and South Carolina have implemented bans on mask mandates in schools. The education department’s civil rights enforcement arm announced on Monday that it had launched investigations into the five states to determine whether their ban on mask mandates is discriminatory against students with disabilities.

Related: Women have long been the leaders in Navajo culture. Now they’re steering the fight against Covid

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