As Sharon Nelson and I clicked elbows goodbye on March 10, what we thought was a heightened precaution was unfolding as the new normal in a world turned upside down.
We had just finished a GALACTIC workshop in Crownpoint, New Mexico, on the Navajo reservation. A collaboration between Navajo Technical University and Indiana University, GALACTIC proposes an anti-colonial corrective to global studies that positions Indigenous communities as architects—not objects—of study.
On that day, we discussed local, national, and even global challenges that confront the Navajo (Diné) Nation and what Diné bina’nitin (Diné ways of knowing) have to offer in this context. Hand sanitizer was everywhere, as were worries about coughs and sneezes. Masks and gloves had yet to appear. In this moment fraught with uncertainty, it seemed clearer than ever that traditional knowledge and science needed each other.
We did not know that our workshop was concluding on the eve of the World Health Organization’s announcement that the coronavirus was not just a local or regional threat but a global pandemic. That same day, the Navajo Nation proactively declared a public health state of emergency. On March 17, the president of the Navajo Nation announced the reservation’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, 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.
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, to students with reliable internet connections.
Outside of class, her major concern was 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. An estimated thirty percent of Navajo do not have running water for handwashing, and over fifty percent suffer from type 2 diabetes and obesity, putting them further at risk.
Many experts warned that the COVID-19 outbreak could quickly overwhelm the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service. The governor of New Mexico and the president of the Navajo Nation negotiated with the federal government for funding. The Navajo government instituted a curfew, extending 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 explained, medical facilities are few and far between. Her family home is an hour’s drive from the nearest on the Hopi reservation. It is a far cry and a dire comparison to the close proximity of hospitals and urgent care facilities where I found myself sheltering in Alexandria, Virginia.
On April 6, police in Page, Arizona, opened an investigation and later charged a thirty-four-year-old man for attempting to incite terrorist violence against Navajo citizens. Through 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. On April 15, St. Mary’s Food Bank delivered 2,000 boxes of food to the community of Tuba City.
As of April 18, officials of the Navajo Nation reported 1,197 cases of COVID-19 with 44 confirmed deaths.
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 from April 9 is one of the many Sharon and I have shared over the past six years. Through GALACTIC, we have journeyed geographic and spiritual 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 put a human face—a woman face, a mother, grandmother, daughter face—on how COVID-19 impacts the Navajo Nation.
Amy Horowitz, PhD, 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, MA, 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.