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‘The Modern West’ Explores How Indigenous America Confronts Pandemics

On this journey from colonizing pilgrims infecting native people to dealing with covid fears in a fierce anti-vax state, this award-winning podcast from Wyoming Public Media shines with brave new stor

"Virus in Indian County," art by Zach Kennah
"Virus in Indian County," art by Zach Kennah
by Todd Wilkinson

I’m not sure what’s in the water down in Laramie.  In terms of young people with energy, and it being an incubation zone for new ideas which ponder a wider-angled view of the West, this land grant college town has a lot going on. 

Wyomingites are drinking from a different well of creativity there. What makes this important is that the University of Wyoming resides in a state, least populous in the nation and losing people due to the decline of the fossil fuel industry, that often seems to have a hard time answering this question: whether Wyoming’s best days are in the past, or by doing things differently and halting its stubborn resistance to change, it achieve a brighter future, freer from the schizophrenic mania of boom and bust cycles. 

For decades, I’ve been watching the evolution of Wyoming Public Media, home to Wyoming’s national public radio affiliate that, bar none, is among the best in rural America. More often, whenever I can, I make a point of listening to its home-grown programming, hoping I don’t lose the signal while navigating the state’s breathtaking topography on writing assignments or road trips. 
A friendly and familiar voice to all of us is that of Wyoming Public Media’s News Director Bob Beck who has assembled a crackerjack team. Among the best new offerings in recent years (and available just by clicking on it at WPM’s webpage) has been The Modern West hosted by Melodie Edwards, a journalist and erstwhile businesswoman; she owns a coffee shop, how cool is that?  You don’t have to live in Wyoming to hear it.

The 2021-2022 season of The Modern West has a fresh, provocative line-up of stories this autumn, packed under the theme “Shall Furnish Medicine,” that takes listeners into Indian Country, enlisting indigenous voices to be guides on a journey into how native communities have dealt with pandemics; not only Covid-19 but the first ones, when Europeans arrived in New England and carried deadly illnesses to which the ancient inhabitants had never been exposed. 

The series of stories Edwards and colleagues have assembled serves as merely a springboard for tales, informed by history—including a history not often considered—that keeps us thinking long after the podcasts end. Not long ago, I engaged Edwards on what The Modern West has in store. 
Bernadette Smith volunteers at Chief Plenty Coups Visitor Center.  She is Crow and has lived on Crow Nation her whole life. Photo courtesy reporter Taylar Stagner
Bernadette Smith volunteers at Chief Plenty Coups Visitor Center. She is Crow and has lived on Crow Nation her whole life. Photo courtesy reporter Taylar Stagner
TODD WILKINSON: What a head-spinning span of time we are passing through. Tell us about the focus of Modern West as it launches into a new season.

MELODIE STARR EDWARDS: Yeah, it's been kind of hard to wrap our collective heads around this pandemic. And it seems like the mainstream media has only had the wherewithal to think about it through the lens of the daily grind. Just, like, how many hospital beds are left in our state? What percentage of our state is vaccinated? And there hasn't been many opportunities to get a historical, big picture view of what we're living through. But that's where podcasts can step in.

TW:  Tell us about the 2021 lineup.

EDWARDS: So this season, I teamed up with two colleagues of mine who grew up in Indigenous communities to look at the whole scope of how pandemics have affected tribal communities. We've all heard how hard-hit tribes have been in the current pandemic. But they also experienced waves of disease from the moment of European contact. Reporter Savannah Maher is Mashpee Wampanoag, the tribe that first encountered British colonizers who came over on the Mayflower and other ships. So she's going to tell the story of the Great Dying from the very beginning from the perspective of her tribe. We'll also hear from Eastern Shoshone/Arapaho descendent Taylar Stagner about what that history looked like as it made its way west. Then we'll trace the history of how the federal government failed to fulfill its treaty promises to provide medicine and doctors. And how, in the last few years, tribes have found a legal way to take over their clinics and run them themselves. 

Lots of tribes were in a much better position to take a stand when Covid-19 hit reservation borders. We'll hear how some tribes served as models for how to efficiently handle a pandemic using broad contact tracing, testing, curfews and even shutting down their borders.

TW: That sounds like a poignant arc of storytelling. An important aspect about the level of concern and the cordon of safety measures that indigenous communities erected involved protecting elders. In fact, as Covid is spreading fast, that seemed to be a first cultural instinct. Do you have any thoughts about this as a reporter/producer?

Host and producer of The Modern West podcast Melodie Edwards
Host and producer of The Modern West podcast Melodie Edwards
:  Yeah, especially in the first wave of the virus, the first population to feel the deadly effects were the elderly. But in tribal communities, elders are the keepers of oral histories and language. Some communities only have a few Native speakers left. So, when the pandemic hit, the need to save the lives of the seniors was a number one priority. The problem was complicated by the fact that there is a housing shortage on many reservations and elders often live in multi-family homes. It made spreading the virus way too easy. That's why tribes like the Northern Arapaho opened up their casino hotel to families so they could quarantine safely.

TW: Following up on that, how does the way that indigenous communities responded provide a lens for the country as a whole to think about reverence for elders?

EDWARDS: It's so interesting you bring that up. I've noticed that the rhetoric around the spread of the virus in the elderly community in the U.S. at large has been very different from that in tribal communities. In the general public, people will often insensitively write off the passing of the very old as inevitable or not much of a loss. There seems to be less of an awareness or value of how much history and cultural memory is being lost through the high numbers of elders dying from the pandemic. That way of perceiving the death of the oldest is something the Native American community doesn't share. There's much more of an awareness of the preciousness of those who remember distant times and ways of life.

TW: Part of the challenge with media reporting statistics is that at some point they become either meaningless or numbing. How has this series caused you to reflect on the way we present information and what resonates and what doesn't? One notable stat is that a huge, huge percentage of people getting sick and turning up in hospital ICUs are unvaccinated.

EDWARDS: Well, as I've been working on this series, I've also been on duty in my newsroom, keeping tally of the daily flow of Covid data. In fact, I just now finished writing up the numbers. Every county in the state of Wyoming except one saw major increases in cases today. In fact, we saw over 1,000 new cases for the first time since last November! So I write these reports and they go out over our airwaves. But that daily trickle, trickle, trickle, I just don't think people can register it. Obviously, they can't since Wyoming is the second least vaccinated state in the country. This whole concept of a "pandemic," we aren't feeling it anymore. There's too much data coming at us--and often it's data we don't trust.

So that's where a podcast can step in and make sense of things. Our reporter Savannah Maher has been covering the pandemic since the beginning and, putting together this season, she dove deep into her archives to find the significant moments and the voices to bring the story into focus for the rest of us that are just floundering down here in the overwhelming flood of it all.
A reporter in the field of Indian Country: Taylar Stagnar visits the new Wellness Center being built at Poplar, Montana on the Fort Peck Reservation. Photo courtesy Taylar Stagner
A reporter in the field of Indian Country: Taylar Stagnar visits the new Wellness Center being built at Poplar, Montana on the Fort Peck Reservation. Photo courtesy Taylar Stagner
TW: Your podcast has been a success and Wyoming Public Media has been doing some thoughtful reporting in areas where you and Mountain Journal overlap.  What were some of the biggest stories you've seen in our region over the last year?

EDWARDS: The pandemic has far and away been dominating our coverage this year. We're currently watching to see what happens as our hospitals face serious staff shortages and the Biden Administration considers a vaccine mandate for health workers that could potentially worsen that shortage as nurses flee to other jobs that don't have such a mandate. 

TW: Okay, beyond Covid.

EDWARDS: I also did a story about the influx of wind projects to the state. It's a real opportunity for cash strapped towns but could also create even more divisions in communities who don't agree on the particulars of how to build wind farms without impacting wild spaces. That'll be an ongoing issue as solar projects move in as well.

It's also fascinating to watch the Liz Cheney drama unfold from a front row seat. Former President Trump just got behind Harriet Hageman, a Cheyenne attorney, to run against her and so the lineup of contestants has been whittling down in recent days. You'd think Cheney would have zero support at this point in a state that went overwhelmingly for Trump, but polls are actually showing her with more support than expected. 

TW: I always like to talk to my journalism contemporaries about fascinating people they've come in contact with—folks that hang around in their thoughts long after the interview or the story is told. Share, if you wouldn't mind, a couple of people who fit that profile.

EDWARDS: I interviewed a rancher who was fighting one of his neighbors in court over their application to drill a bunch of high-capacity water wells that could very well dry up what remained of the creeks and springs in the area. He took me out to see these springs, little shangri-las in the middle of the prairie where frogs and birds sang and cottonwoods grew. It really brought home to issue of climate change and drought in a very new way for me.

I also interviewed the CEO of the Northern Arapaho tribe's health clinic, Richard Brannen. I've interviewed him numerous times in the past but he gave me a deeply personal story for this podcast series on the pandemic. He told me how scary it was to wake up in the middle of the night and realize his tribe was facing this disease in a country run by President Trump who wasn't taking the virus seriously and in a state and county that was also shrugging it off. He realized there was no white savior coming in on a white horse to save them and that meant the tribe needed to protect itself the best it could.
TW: We in the West are blessed with the opportunity to learn from our indigenous friends and neighbors. In terms of what you hope listeners will take away from this series on Modern West, what are they or maybe a better question is what should readers be listening for as they absorb the stories?

EDWARDS: We've become such a tech and data-oriented society—every kid needs to get into math or science or business or they don't have value in our culture. I'm seeing how educators and politicians scoff at the liberal arts and it worries me. It means we aren't learning how to seek meaning or form philosophies or learn from human progress and error. The story of Indigenous people is a case in point. It's a story that we all think we know but we've only learned around the fringes in our classrooms. Or worse, we've learned untruths or half truths about how long Native Americans have been cultivating this continent or how genocide looks as it begins to heal. There's a lot of fear, I've seen, by my colleagues in the media to explore these stories, valid fears of telling these stories inaccurately or perpetuating stereotypes. But we've got to muster the courage to seek the truth anyway. I've found the best way to do that is to lift up the Indigenous voices who know that story the best.

NOTE TO READERS: You can listen to the podcast clicking this link for The Modern West.

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