How the Pandemic Is Affecting the Navajo Nation
A conversation about the challenges facing—and the resilience of—the largest reservation in the country, which has become a COVID-19 hotspot
As Sharon Nelson and I clicked elbows goodbye on the Navajo (Diné) Nation on March 10, what we thought then was a heightened precaution was unfolding as the new normal in a world turned upside down by the COVID-19 outbreak.
We had just finished a workshop in Crownpoint, New Mexico, on the Navajo reservation, as part of the Global Arts Language Arts Culture Tradition Indigenous Communities (GALATIC), a collaboration between Navajo Technical University, where Sharon teaches Diné language and culture, and Indiana University. GALACTIC proposes an anti-colonial corrective to global studies that positions Indigenous communities as architects—not objects—of study.
On that March day, we discussed what Diné bina’nitin (Diné ways of knowing) have to offer the local, national and even global challenges that confront the Navajo Nation. In the midst of all the uncertainty around the new disease, it seemed clearer than ever that traditional knowledge and science needed each other.
We did not know that the very next day, the World Health Organization would announce that the coronavirus had escalated and become a global pandemic. That same day, the Navajo Nation proactively declared a public health state of emergency. The president of the Navajo Nation announced the reservation’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 17, and five days later, the Navajo Times reported that the Navajo Department of Health had traced a large outbreak to a church rally in Chilchinbeto, Arizona, attended by worshippers from at least seven Western Navajo chapters. As of publication, case counts have swelled past 1,000, constituting more than half of all cases reported to Indian Health Service. Masks, still uncommon when I visited, have since become mandatory.
Almost a month after we said goodbye in New Mexico, Sharon and I reunited via videoconference, and she shared how her community is weathering the outbreak of Dikos Ntsaaígíí-19, or COVID-19.
The Nation Changes
For Sharon, sheltering in place means keeping to her on-campus home at Navajo Tech in order to continue teaching her five Diné studies classes, now virtually. It’s not a given that students will have reliable internet connections, as roughly six out of every ten households on the reservation are not online.
Outside of class, she worried that public safety announcements would not reach the communities most at risk in this country: Indigenous communities like the Navajo Nation with limited health care resources and areas without electricity or running water. Nearly one in five adults living on the reservation have been diagnosed with diabetes, putting them further at risk of serious COVID-19 complications. (Among Arizona’s COVID-19 deaths, a disproportionate number of Navajo lives have been lost.)
Many experts warned that the COVID-19 outbreak could quickly overwhelm the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service. The Navajo president, Jonathan Nez, has voiced frustration about how being required to go through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to access federal funding impeded his government’s ability to respond to the crisis. The Navajo government instituted police-enforced curfews and extended their stay-at-home order. Eventually, a few U.S. national news articles began to appear.
The Arizona Army National Guard delivered personal protective equipment to medical facilities in Chinle and surrounding communities. But as Sharon explains, medical facilities are few and far between, numbering just 12 in total. Her family home is an hour’s drive from the nearest on the Hopi reservation. It is a far cry from the close proximity of hospitals and urgent care facilities where I found myself sheltering in Alexandria, Virginia.
The racism roused by this pandemic has been directed at Navajo people along with Asian Americans. Police in Page, Arizona, arrested a 34-year-old man for attempting to incite terrorist violence against Navajo citizens. In Facebook posts, he claimed all Navajo were infected with the COVID-19 virus.
On April 13, the Navajo Nation received their first rapid testing kits, which can yield results in under an hour. Non-profits and local governments have also donated food and water, since on-reservation grocery stores are relatively scarce.
As of April 22, officials of the Navajo Nation reported 1,282 cases of COVID-19 with 49 fatalities. Hard-hit New York and New Jersey are the only states with more confirmed cases per resident, although those numbers are likely influenced by the high testing rate on the reservation.
Today, tribal members are working against adversity, doing what they can. Communities are organizing mutual aid efforts to bring water, food, firewood and other necessities to rural families, the sick and the elderly. One Navajo public official started a GoFundMe relief fund for Navajo and Hopi families. Doubtful of receiving enough aid from the federal government, people are resurfacing the old phrase, “plant your food and be self-sufficient.” Sharon reports that as the crisis unfolds, many Navajo are returning to their spiritual roots for comfort and guidance.
This short conversation, filmed on April 9, is one of the many Sharon and I have shared over the past six years. Through GALACTIC, we have journeyed many roads together, including in both our nation’s capitals: Washington, D.C., for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and Window Rock, Arizona, at the Navajo National Museum. Our hope is that this virtual conversation between two friends will show, from one community member’s vantage point at home on the reservation, how COVID-19 impacts the Navajo Nation.
Amy Horowitz is the co-director of GALACTIC at Indiana University. A longtime associate of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, she served as acting and assistant director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and Folklife curator in the 1990s.
Sharon Nelson is the department chair of Diné studies at Navajo Technical University, where she teaches Diné language and culture. She sits on the board of directors of Navajo Language Academy and serves as executive director of the Heartbeat Music Project, a music program for K-12 Navajo students.
GALACTIC (Global Arts Language Arts Culture Tradition Indigenous Communities) is a project of the School of Diné Studies at Navajo Technical University, the Center for the Study of the Middle East, Center for the Study of Global Change and Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University, the Roadwork Center for Cultures in Disputed Territory, and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
Folklife is a digital magazine of music, food, craft, and culture from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage.