Searching for Connection in a Time of Distance

Article and Images by Sarah Morairty

I feel that I am not alone in saying that at this point, I am completely lost. We are all no longer able to live the lives we were accustomed to. Our existence, in a way, has been utterly and irreversibly altered. These social distancing protocols have imposed a whole new twist to life, and one that none of us saw coming or were remotely prepared for. During this time of distance and confusion, we are all looking for something to feel connected to.

Generally speaking, our daily lives typically consist of activities and things that give us purpose, whether they be exercising, owning a pet, working a 9-5, going to school, etc. I feel that we as humans are always trying to find our individual purposes, a feat that was hard enough before this crisis. Now, social distancing has added an even more difficult complication. Every day, we have to wake up and figure out how to translate our old lives into a new, more restricted one. Every day, it seems we are presented with another unforeseen consequence of the virus: some are losing their jobs, some are losing loved ones, loved ones are dying alone, healthcare workers are working at maximum levels, students who are graduating in spring aren’t able to have graduation ceremonies, the list goes on. For some, the worst consequence is that they have to be locked inside all day with only themselves and their thoughts.

Amid all this negativity, though, there are beautiful phenomena blooming out all around us, both figuratively and literally. In the figurative aspect, social movements of caring and helping each other are growing. Social media has been a never-ending venting/therapy session where strangers from all around the world can find support and validation from each other. People have become more understanding and compassionate. On the literal aspect, with the retreat of human activity, ecosystems around the world are making comebacks and beginning to thrive again.

Nature continues to move forward, even when it feels like our world has come to a halt. I find this inspiring and beautiful. It seems like many people, including myself, have been looking towards nature for a sense of comfort. Us human creatures have this subconscious yearning for connection to other beings and life, a biophilia that drives us to continuously seek these connections. We are all creations of Gitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit, and our Earth Mother. We are all connected and have large impacts on each other, and now is the time where this is being made very clear.

I urge us to look toward our communities’ teachings and Earth Mother for guidance. The medicine wheel has brought some organization into my newly unorganized life. I learned from one of my elders to use each section to represent an area of my health and well-being: spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental/intellectual. Each week, I make sure to keep track of the things that I have done to maintain each section. When one area is lacking, I can take more time to fill in the holes. In this way, I am ensuring that my well-being is holistically being cared for. 

Yellow flowers on green stems. Large  brown bee on one of the flowers.

Right now, we are in the time of spring, ziigwan, the yellow section of the wheel. In my tribe, it is a time of renewal and new beginnings. Just as the land is awakening and creating new growth, we can utilize this shift from COVID-19 to grow and start anew. While we cannot go out and do all the things we used to before, there is much to see around us. Go outside and look at all the fresh growth. Flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, spiders are spinning their webs, squirrels are scurrying amongst the trees. Take advantage of the clearer skies and look at the sunsets, the stars, and moon. Enjoy the beauty that each day brings.

This period in our lives is difficult and even painful at times. But we mustn’t let the negativity consume us, lest we all become windigos1. Stay kind to your neighbors, to your environment, and to yourself. I wish you all the best in this challenge of reinventing ourselves and our futures.

1A windigo (there are different variations in spellings from tribe to tribe) is someone who has become overwhelmed with greed, selfishness, and/or negativity and has thus turned into a wicked monster. It is a warning tale of my tribe against these negative characteristics.

Sarah Morairty, LiKEN Research Assistant

Sarah is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in American Indian and Indigenous Studies. She is part of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. She is a passionate activist for the rights of Mother Earth and marginalized communities and has research interests in sustainable development, climate change and its impacts on communities of color, traditional approaches to land and resource management, economic and political approaches to the transition towards a green society, food sovereignty, cultural preservation and protection, and institutionalized marginalization. She wants social and environmental justice for all, as well as a healthy and positive future for our children. As she says: “In the words of my ancestors, ‘Maamawi mashkogaabawiyang’; together we stand strong. Let’s build a better world together.” 

The CARES Act is not Cutting It: Eastern Kentuckians Need More Federal Aid

By Larah Helayne and Ricki Draper.                                                           

First published in the Mountain Citizen, Martin County June 10, 2020

This is just one of over one hundred stories that have been shared by East Kentuckians requesting direct financial relief due to loss of income in the face of the COVID-19 Crisis. This financial relief didn’t come from provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the federal legislation passed in March to support families in economic crises. It came from the East Kentucky (EKY) Mutual Aid Network. Long before the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, many families in Eastern Kentucky have worked hard to make ends meet each month. The CARES Act didn’t provide enough support for many families in Eastern Kentucky, and that’s why we, organizers from the EKY Mutual Aid network, are calling on our representatives to do more for our communities and families by providing emergency relief funding to meet every Kentuckian’s basic needs.

EKY Mutual Aid is a new network, formed and led entirely by volunteers, that has emerged in response to the overwhelming need of East Kentuckians, made only more intense by the gravity of this current epidemic. COVID-19 has forced us all to recognize our own vulnerability and need for community support. Therefore, we adopted a mutual aid model that involves a reciprocal exchange of resources with the premise that the unjust distribution of resources in our society is a political issue. EKY Mutual Aid operates under the belief that when communities come together to support each other, every member of the community is stronger – each person has something to offer as well as something they need. The success of EKY Mutual Aid is completely due to an outpouring of communal support. Thus far, 139 individuals have donated over $11,000 to the group’s GoFundMe, which has allowed over 50 families to receive relief. Hundreds of people have shared the fundraiser on social media, and it has been amplified by other mutual aid groups, and various non-profits throughout the Appalachian region. Beyond providing financial relief, EKY Mutual Aid has started a Facebook group with over 600 members, where people can seek and share resources, such as masks, hand sanitizer, and gardening supplies. Twice a week, the group hosts virtual meetings to discuss fundraiser progress, possible expansions in the type of aid provided, and to highlight the work of other mutual aid organizations. The group is made up of students, parents, non-profit employees, musicians, artists, gig-workers, and community members from Letcher, Pike, Montgomery, Floyd, Knott, Martin, and Elliott counties, all with a common goal: empower our communities to come together and help one another in this trying time, and beyond.

Our experience with Eastern KY Mutual Aid shows the power of solidarity and relying on existing community strengths, but as the crisis continues and the financial futures of more and more individuals remain uncertain, it is hard to keep a fund like this one going. Donations to the GoFundMe are slowing as the crisis continues. The group closed the request form on May 11 to new applicants, and we are currently working hard to fulfill the existing requests on a long waiting list. The need is overwhelming, not just in eastern Kentucky, but across the country. And the fact is, the families hit hardest by this health and economic crisis are those that were already struggling to meet their basic needs.

Eastern Kentuckians are no stranger to challenges and hardship, and we have always taken care of our neighbors in times of need. But we, and families all across the country, urgently need more federal aid to survive this crisis. Federal aid distribution must also take into account populations disproportionately affected by Covid-19, especially Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities. The national protests erupting across the country in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and countless other unarmed Black people highlight the systemic racism that permeates our society and, though no federal aid package will be able to address the systemic inequities that this pandemic and past weeks have further revealed, congress can start to address these inequities by ensuring that those that need the most support are not left out. The CARES Act, one of the federal government’s initial relief efforts, offered only a fraction of what is needed. Many individuals were left out of the package and it did nothing to help bolster our state budget. Without adequate funding for state services like healthcare and education, those left out of the initial CARES Act, like people already unemployed, caretakers of elderly relatives or children under 17, and low-income earners, will be left to struggle without even the basic services they’ve depended on from our state.

            The next package of legislation must address the failures of the previous relief act. Legislation must prioritize every family’s basic needs: safe and secure housing, access to healthy food and clean and affordable drinking water, and medical care. To meet these needs, EKY Mutual Aid and a host of other community-based organizations believe that the act must include: a flexible emergency assistance fund to be administered by states that can provide assistance to those that don’t qualify for other aid; an increase in SNAP benefits to help pay for the meals of children home from school and allow families to buy more in one trip to the grocery store; housing vouchers for rental assistance, and relief for states. State fiscal relief is critical to ensuring that our recession does not deepen into a depression. The HEROES Act, legislation that passed the House of Representatives earlier this month, provides a SNAP benefits increase, support for states, and some additional rental assistance funds. It is crucial that Senator Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, take action now to move this legislation forward in the senate. There is no time to wait.

We know how to take care of ourselves and each other, but in order to make it through this crisis, we need government officials and all those in political power to take initiative, and do what is necessary to provide East Kentuckians and all Americans with the relief and support they need. Join EKY Mutual Aid in demanding federal legislation that adequately addresses the needs of East Kentuckians, and all those who too often fall through the cracks created by an unjust system. Contact your legislators today. Send a letter to Senator McConell by following this link: We will get through this together; and that means all of us must play our part.

To see how your representatives voted click here.

“When I received the $200, it felt like the biggest burden had been lifted from my shoulders. My parents are both high risk to COVID-19, and their extra money had been going toward different cleaning products and supplies… We’re normally proud people and would never ask for help. I put all of that aside and I am so glad I did. I wish everyone knew how much this organization has helped the people who live right here in the mountains. Thank you all again for not making me feel like a charity case.” 

UPDATE: Since this article was published, EKY Mutual Aid has distributed over $15,000 to Eastern Kentuckians affected by Covid-19.