On a hot summer day, my mother and I drove on and off the northern edges of the Diné (Navajo) Nation, through Utah tribal communities all along the San Juan River. Together we handed out food donations and other vital necessities on behalf of the Indigenous-led nonprofit environmental organization Utah Diné Bikéyah.
We finally got to check in with folks in a few different communities in the area where the regular pace of life—with work, school, and traveling—made such visits a rare opportunity, even before this virus. We greeted our neighbors, cousins, aunties, uncles, and extended kin by blood and by clan, after weeks of being separated by both time and space, a disconnect exacerbated by the quarantine. Along the way, my mother told me old stories from the time of my grandmother’s grandmother. Each canyon, river, spring, rock formation, and dirt road triggered memories, a new tale of our Indigenous people across generations. During an early pandemic outbreak in the region before roads and electricity, folks shouted from the hilltops, warning people to stay away from each other so they would not get sick.
We drove onto a rolling dirt road to a family home near the hooghan where my mother remembered having her Kinaaldá, the Diné women’s puberty ceremony. She recounted running each day in a different direction, part of the challenging four-day coming-of-age ritual for young women. She fondly recalled those early sunrises, marveling at the Benally family’s generosity, allowing our family to use their home, now knowing it contributed to the strong woman she would become.
Being a nurse, my mother is familiar with the health needs of the people here. Despite the Navajo Nation’s leadership efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, she knows all too well how difficult it is with limited access to clean water, electricity, communication, and transportation in these places, where people are doing their best with what little they have. The Navajo Nation is among the hardest hit and most impacted areas in the United States, and has rivaled many other hotspots in the world, including New York City, per capita at one point. But this isn’t what defines us.
We are defined by the connections we have to our relatives, both human and non-human. Our efforts to get supplies to elders and hard-to-reach Navajo families are intentional and heartfelt because we know how challenging living in remote areas is. It is hard to communicate, coordinate, and plan, given limited access to technology, internet, and cell service. Still, there are a lot of community members out helping today. Some of our local partners—Utah Navajo Health Systems, Bluff Area Mutual Aid, Navajo/Hopi Relief, and the Common Humanity Collective—are attempting to streamline these efforts. We help each other whenever possible, coordinating supplies like food, drinks, hand sanitizer, and other PPE. It is not a story about defeat; it is about resilience, collaboration, and, above all, a desire to cooperate despite different organizational missions, histories, and backgrounds.
We are not defined by the media narratives from outside of our communities, that feed on their ideas of “poverty” or the “disaster.” We know who we are as tribal members, communities, and kin. We give each other hope in this difficult time. Acknowledging that we can survive together makes all the difference. Wellness means social and cultural balance, including taking care of ourselves, because if we don’t, then how will we be any good to anyone else? It takes consistent effort to strive for and maintain balance, within and outside of oneself. During these quarantine periods, it has become increasingly apparent that the isolation and loneliness weigh heavily on our Indigenous communities, especially our elders.
We are defined by Nature, the Earth, and the larger cosmos—the harmony between life and death, in the constant struggle to balance itself. In Navajo culture, we call that balance Hózhó, a critical philosophy that incorporates beauty, life, and wellness into its framework. Since we are all a part of Nature, we are not better than it or above its reproach. Human beings inherently know they may be at the mercy and will of Nature at any time. Now, with this pandemic, more than ever we are reminded that this is true, a lesson our elders teach us from a young age.
Recently, over the spring and summer months, many Indigenous nations have expressed desires to gather in ceremonial spaces, in what would usually be very social events. Although the need is great for both prayer and ritual at this time, the safety of our elders and community members is paramount. We need to focus on keeping our people healthy and well, secure in the knowledge that although we might not be practicing our ceremonies in person with each other, we can do them while apart.
KTNN, a Navajo radio station, and the Diné Hataali Association already promote massive prayers at scheduled times, together as a nation and for both protection and strength. Thousands of voices, in unison from wherever they are, harmonizing in spiritual concentration as one and for each other. This encouragement, coupled with the Navajo Nation government pressing for curfews and limited large gatherings, means a safer season into the fall. After all, protecting our elders is protecting our culture.
After we gave several families needed supplies—with our face masks, gloves, and social distancing of six feet—we remarked at the beauty of the Benally family’s flourishing garden, with tall corn stalks, squash, and a variety of gorgeously plump melons, including one variety that was a few hundred years old from Arizona. It sparked a conversation about the recent past, and we were impressed at their traditional farming knowledge. A trade organically emerged: we gave them our donations, and they gifted us something out of their garden. It was not a transactional gesture but a friendly one. Generosity and kindness ruled the day, once more a generation later.
My mother recounted her Kinaaldá story tenderly, lovingly, and they listened intently, thankful for having a story about their relatives now gone but not forgotten. Everyone was ready to cry. We chatted about everything, from the past to the plants, until the sun started to set down among the red rocks and we knew we had more homes to visit before dark.
“We don’t get many donations or visits out here.” No one wants to leave, our relatives and ourselves still a little lonely. They go back to their home, and we get back in the car, the new hilltops are the old hilltops now, as we said to each other, “We won’t be strangers anymore.”
Angelo Baca is a cultural activist, scholar, filmmaker and currently a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University. He is the cultural resources coordinator at Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the defense and protection of culturally significant ancestral lands.