Pandemic Reveals Navajos’ Tenacity

Coronavirus is the most recent in a historical list of political and social challenges to the Navajo Nation.

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Tattered American flag in a Navajo cemetery. (Author’s photo)

I took the photo above on a late-afternoon in winter 2003 at a small Navajo cemetery near Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation.

The flag is one of many that was flying in the cemetery. Navajos are quite patriotic, even when it seems they have little reason to be. Many Navajo men volunteer for the United States military. When Navajos plant a U.S. flag in the cemetery to honor a veteran — it stays there. Wind-ripped, tattered, and frayed, the flags remain until they are just some scraps of material on a pole.

Those flags represent Navajo resilience. Torn, but still holding strong.

Coronavirus — COVID-19 — is the most recent in a historical list of political and social challenges to the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo Nation encompasses 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. At the end of April 2020, it had the third highest pandemic infection rate in the United States, behind New York and New Jersey.

At this writing, the Navajo Nation had recorded 3,632 cases of COVID-19, and 127 related deaths. That’s of some 250,000 citizens.

Gallup, New Mexico, one of the key entry points to the Nation, closed its highways to limit exposure to Coronavirus.

Last week, Doctors Without Borders sent a contingent to help Navajos fight COVID-19.

Doctors Without Borders? Yes, I was amazed, too.

You normally think of Doctors Without Borders helping third-world countries fight health emergencies. Not entirely true, as the organization is ready to help any area in urgent need. Doctors Without Borders has also helped New York and Puerto Rico during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has been so devastating to the Navajo Nation, and Navajo leaders are so serious about their response, that President Jonathan Nez has, for the first time in the pandemic, ordered essential businesses closed this weekend.

“No businesses will be open this weekend,” Nez announced during a virtual town hall May 14. “Now that I said that everyone is going to be running to the store. Please, help each other at this time. Don’t be selfish.”

“Don’t be selfish.” Those are words of wisdom at a time when thousands of Americans are selfishly claiming their personal rights and refusing to wear masks.

In 1864, the United States army, headed by renowned frontier scout Kit Carson, unleashed a scorched-earth campaign against Navajos to uproot them from their traditional homeland. After destroying the Navajos’ winter supplies, Carson sent them on the notorious “Long Walk,” a forced-march across New Mexico to the Bosque Redondo.

After four years, Navajos successfully negotiated the Treaty of 1868 with the United States, winning the right to move back to their homeland.

Navajos, like other Native Americans, have endured their share of broken treaty promises, racism, and ethnic neglect.

Yet they are proud Americans. Navajos have served in American wars since World War I. Military service helps men reconnect to a warrior tradition, gain a sense of service, and take advantage of opportunities not available in the Navajo Nation.

Most famous are the Navajo “code talkers” in the Marines during World War II. They used Navajo words to make a code that the Japanese were unable to break.

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Map of the sprawling Navajo Nation showing its five Agency divisions and 110 Chapter communities. (Navajo Family Voices)

The Navajo Nation is isolated, federal aide is often bound-up in red tape, and, while Navajos are proud to tackle their own problems, it often seems as if they get little recognition in the scope of American politics and social equity.

The Navajo Nation has factors that have made it particularly susceptible to COVID-19.

  • The vast region has limited hospital beds, meaning that many infected people have to recover at home. But Navajos suffer both from limited housing and overcrowding. Homes are far apart, often miles distant from neighbors, and they are small. A few rooms must accommodate extended families. That makes sheltering-in-place or isolation of the sick difficult.
  • Up to 30% of Navajo homes don’t have electricity; 40% are without electricity. Those are horrible conditions in which to fight COVID-19.,
  • Obesity rates are high among Navajos, with related high occurrences of hypertension and diabetes. Coronavirus particularly targets those pre-existing conditions.
  • Plus, the Navajo Nation is a food desert — a region with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. The Nation is agrarian, with tens of thousands of acres under cultivation, and even more set aside for livestock grazing. But as COVID-19 has shown, supply chains are fragile, and food distribution in the Navajo Nation was spare even before the pandemic. There are only 13 grocery stores in the Navajo country, and they are far apart.

The Navajo Nation received $600 million in COVID relief through the federal CARES Act. However, Nez and his government had to pry it loose from the government to get it in the bank. The Nation’s story is not unlike small businesses around the country expecting help.

Nez hopes that some of the CARES Act money can go toward getting much-needed waterlines built to areas without plumbing.

“Scientists and experts are predicting another wave in the winter. How do we prepare for that?” Nez told the Navajo Times. “You got the feds and everyone saying, ‘Wash your hands.’ But our people are still hauling water. Here is a great way to get running water for our people.”

For two months Americans have focused on the urban fights against COVID-19, and with good reason. Big population centers are frequent hot spots.

Only in late April did rural areas, some with meat processing plants, start to get focused media attention.

But from the start, the Navajo Nation has been fighting the spread of coronavirus. As is so often the case, Navajos have carried on the fight quietly, off the radar, and with too few resources.

And just like the flags at the Navajo cemetery I saw so long ago, Navajos are once again proving their resilience.

We’ve got to do better than this, folks.

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