(CNN)She was no more than 6 when she saw the black birds come for her family.
Her name was Kateri Tekakwitha, and she was a 17th century Mohawk girl living in what is now upstate New York. She had heard of a mysterious pestilence hitting distant tribes, but then it hit her village.
Red spots like berries appeared on the tongues of its victims. They turned into blisters that spread over the body, even appearing under the eyelids. Tekakwitha had no name for this mysterious affliction that would eventually kill her parents and her infant brother, and scar her face. She simply called it "black birds," because "its beak eats my face."
That's how the author Diane Glancy describes the devastating effects of smallpox in her historical novel, "The Reason for Crows." That pandemic was part of a biological catastrophe that eventually wiped out an estimated 90% of native peoples in North America.
"It was disease more than the cavalry that defeated the Indians," says Glancy, an acclaimed poet who is the daughter of a Cherokee father and an English/German mother.
Now the black birds are gathering for Native Americans again.
This time it's called the coronavirus, and it's already been hammering other groups, like the elderly and African-Americans. But it poses a unique challenge to indigenous Americans -- and it's a grim reminder of one of their most painful historical traumas.
Why the coronavirus is so deadly for Native Americans
Native Americans are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus because they suffer from disproportionate rates of asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Add to that lack of access to health care and pervasive poverty among the estimated 5.2 million people that identity as Native American or Alaskan native.
But there's another fact that makes the coronavirus particularly menacing. Many Native Americans live in small and crowded conditions.
"You have a tinderbox," says Kevin Allis, chief executive officer of the National Congress of American Indians. "The virus can get into a home or a couple of homes, and spread very quickly."
In some native communities, that type of contagion may already be happening.