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COVID-19 Research: Studying Its Impact on Native Communities

Taos Pueblo image courtesy of Dwayne Lefthand, Taos Pueblo Tribal Secretary

By Dr. Kristin Drexler, Faculty Member, School of STEM with Dr. Michelle Watts, Faculty Member, International Relations and Global Security, and Bridget Kimsey, Graduate Student, Space Studies, School of STEM

Last week, Dr. Michelle Watts and I, along with APU graduate student Bridget Kimsey, traveled to Taos, New Mexico. We were on a COVID-19 research trip to begin a study on how this pandemic has impacted Indigenous communities. Our three-person team was part of a larger research team that includes faculty member Dr. Casey Skvorc and several outstanding student assistants. 

Faculty members Dr. Michelle Watts and Dr. Kristin Drexler with graduate student Bridget Kimsey. Image courtesy of Michelle Watts.

The purpose of the COVID-19 research study was to examine the complex array of impacts from this pandemic and provide a voice to the lived experiences of indigenous groups in the Americas. Through interviews with local residents, the COVID-19 research study aimed to understand their perceptions on health, livelihood, the environment and government policies. Our research will contribute to the emerging body of knowledge on civil society, social capital, collective action, and socio-ecological system changes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are continuing the COVID-19 research study in New Mexico and Alaska later in 2022. Future studies are planned for communities in Central America and other locations across the U.S.

Related link: Finding the Drive to Build New Post-Pandemic Healthy Habits

Our Experience of COVID-19 Research in Taos

After our first day conducting field research in late April (while we were driving back from an outing to the impressive Rio Grande Gorge), I had a chance to ask Dr. Watts and Bridget about the COVID-19 research study and their experience so far.

Bridget reflecting on the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, New Mexico. Image courtesy of Kristin Drexler.

Dr. Drexler: Dr. Watts, thank you for including me as a faculty researcher for your study. As the lead investigator, can you explain the COVID-19 research study and tell us what prompted you to participate?

Dr. Watts: Sure! So the idea of the COVID-19 research study is to look at the situation of Native nations during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the ones that we do not hear about on the news every day – the ones that might be off the beaten path or on the outskirts of society. 

Literature is emerging about the COVID-19 pandemic now, and I think it’s instructive for us to know what is going on within Native communities. By focusing on communities that are diverse – sovereign nations which have their own laws and traditional practices – I think we can learn a lot and gain insights on the pandemic experience.

Dr. Drexler: Bridget, what made you want to be our field research assistant for this study in New Mexico?

Bridget: When I saw this COVID-19 research study, I said, “Wow – I used to live in New Mexico. I love New Mexico. And I love Taos Pueblo!” I think it’s the light and expansiveness of this area that I love.

New Mexico is an incredible portal of our human ancestry. Also, connecting to the greater landscapes and the night sky is easier; you can see part of the Milky Way at night since there’s not as much light pollution here. 

For me, it is an honor and a gift to work with, for, and inside of Native nations. It’s a chance to give a voice to communities that may be overlooked and collect accurate data while being inclusive and respectful about the pandemic. It’s bringing voice to populations that don’t always get a voice in the literature and in the media.

I like field research work a lot – the study and teamwork – so this is a passion. It’s hugely beneficial. What I take away from it will help me determine where I go for study or work – or if I should continue with my Ph.D. Having the hands-on exploration is invaluable.

The long trip out here (from Vermont) was a no-brainer. This trip is an education in itself.

Dr. Watts: What drew YOU to this study, Kristin?

Dr. Drexler: I liked the interdisciplinary nature of the COVID-19 research study. As a person who studies sociological systems and uses community capitals framework in my research, this research trip sounded like a great opportunity.

Also, I’m in New Mexico, so the idea of learning more about communities in my home state sounded like a really great study. I’m proud and happy to be a part of it!

Dr. Watts: I like how you mentioned the interdisciplinary nature of the study because we were talking about that earlier. I’m from global security and international relations. You have a STEM background in environmental science, and then we also have Dr. Casey Skvorc with a law and health background. One of the great elements that you contributed to this COVID-19 research study is the community capitals framework.

Dr. Drexler: Bridget, can you tell us about your experience and interest working with Native nations?

Bridget: Yes. I think as a registered Lenape (Delaware) Indian and living and working within New York City’s American Indian Community House for seven years, I have had to navigate two different worlds. For instance, I have navigated both Native communities and the modern, dominant culture of the United States.

I often find that I have to explain a lot to others to help them understand the Native community. I notice that in literature and schooling, there’s a stagnant understanding of Native cultures and people.

I also think that through my own interest, work, and research in healthcare and sciences, I can bring in Indigenous methodologies that are applicable to modern scientific fields and vice versa. Combining both sets of knowledge can help community resiliency.

The continual perception of victimized, disempowered Native nations is a constant issue because there are powerful modern Native scientists, lawyers, politicians, doctors and surgeons. They work in both the modern U.S. culture but also respect Native traditions.

There is value, importance and need for rituals and traditions. So I’m hoping this study will help us understand better how to deal with current health crises like COVID-19 within Native communities. We may not have to reinvent the wheel; instead, we can look for and find bridges for healthcare solutions.

Dr. Drexler: Bridget, what is your current course of study and background?

Bridget: Currently, I’m a master’s student in space studies with a concentration in astronomy. I’ve been in integrated healthcare for 28 years.

My work in oncology led me to be interested in physics. Looking at the greater scope of creation – stars and nebulae – and how they are created is fascinating. I’m finding that there’s an incredible bridge to Indigenous astronomy.

Regarding space studies and where we are currently with space exploration, I’m concerned that we as a human species are recreating what happened in the 1400s. Explorers in Europe were roaming the wilderness of Earth in ships, not going about it respectfully and creating mass destruction after mass destruction.

There is evidence that this type of unrestricted destruction is happening again in space. Just take a look at the space junk polluting low Earth orbits as an example.

Dr. Drexler: Dr. Watts, what do you expect to find in this COVID-19 research study?

Dr. Watts: I think a lot of what we expect to find is pain and hardship in what the people we interview have gone through, but we also expect to find resilience. We’re really curious about the role of different capitals in community well-being.

For instance, how do different influences factor together in a time of crisis? Which of those influences were unexpected and important for people? I think there are some great lessons in how people dealt with the pandemic.

I want to add that it’s exciting to be here and get started on the research. I’m grateful for you both being here, and it helps to share the experience and support.

I’m also grateful that Taos Pueblo allowed us to come. It really is an honor for us to be allowed in and see a little bit of their world, so I’m excited for our next steps.

Related link: COVID-19’s Impact Ushered in a New Era of Crisis Management

Health- and Science-Related Student Organizations at the University

For more interaction and involvement in COVID-19 and other topics, please consider joining one of these student organizations or taking courses in the School of Health Sciences, including our online master’s degree in community and public health nursing.

About the Authors

Dr. Kristin Drexler is a full-time faculty member in the Space Studies and Earth Sciences Department. She teaches geography, environmental science, earth system history, conservation of natural resources, and earth and planetary sustainability for the School of STEM. She earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership at New Mexico State University by researching socioecological systems, sustainable agroecology and community education. She earned her Master of Arts in international affairs with an emphasis in natural resources management from Ohio University.

Dr. Drexler earned the Undergraduate Excellence in Teaching Award for the APUS School of STEM (2020) and the Dr. Wallace E. Boston Leadership Award for American Public University System (2021). Kristin has conducted numerous community surveys in Belize regarding agroforestry, conservation and sustainable agriculture. Dr. Drexler serves as a faculty advisor for the university’s wSTEM and AWIS chapters.

Dr. Michelle Watts is the Assistant Department Chair for Global Security. Her Ph.D. is in International Development from the University of Southern Mississippi; she completed a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Arizona. Her past research includes disaster relief in Guatemala and access to technology among Native nations in the United States, as well as human rights and governance of Indigenous peoples in the United States and Central America. Dr. Watts is a faculty adviser for Sigma Iota Rho, Gamma Omega. 

Bridget Kimsey has been in the healing arts and sciences for 28 years. She has her roots and beginnings in learning and working with her Native elders as a registered member of the Lenape Tribe of Indians. With their guidance, Bridget went on to study and holds various credentials in integrative health. She works closely with the medical and scientific communities on differing cases and projects and is a published author of three books.

Bridget has an associate degree in STEM from the Community College of Vermont and a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and sciences from New York University She is currently working on a master of science degree in space studies at American Public University. Please feel free to visit Bridget at her website.

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