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Does the COVID-19 pandemic reveal the unity of the Navajo Nation?

April 14, 2020


by Eugénie Clément, PhD candidate in anthropology at EHESS and coordinator of the California cluster at the Institute of the Americas



We feel that the United States government once again has ignored or even left out the first residents, the first people, the first citizens of this country: Indigenous people” declared April 3, 2020 Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, which occupies the largest Native American reserve in the United States.

This statement reveals the distress felt by the indigenous people and their authorities, whose priority today is no longer to prepare, but to protect and care for their populations despite a federal government which, according to them, at best delegates and at worst sacrifices them.


The first official case of covid-19 (Dikos Ntsaaígíí-19 in Diné language) on the Navajo and Hopi reserves was reported on March 17. Since then, the number of patients has increased exponentially. The official website of the Department of Health Diné (Navajo Department of Health) counted 813 positive cases, including 28 deaths on April 14. Monday 13th of April saw an increase of 115 new cases. order to fight against the pandemic, safety instructions in English and in Diné were disseminated via social networks, by Diné institutions and individuals recommending regular hand washing (the famous “barrier gestures” promoted all over the world) and extreme limitation of movement.


The borders of the Navajo nation have been closed along with its famous national parks. In an already complicated relation to tourism one can even read signs "turists, go home" on the edge of the roads bordering the reserve and on the outskirts of border towns such as Flagstaff.


Since March 30, faced with the scale of the spread of the virus, a curfew has been imposed on the entire Diné territory. From 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., all trips are prohibited and for an indefinite period. Next weekend, faced with the acceleration of the virus and non-compliance with the instructions limiting travel, President Nez and his team decided on a 57-hour curfew.


In the implementation of these measures, the choice of words is underlined by my interlocutors: "We do not practice social distance, but physical distance" ("It's not social distancing, it's physical distancing"), because in time of pandemic, it is out of love for one's loved ones and the most fragile that this physical separation is exercised.


Covid-19 indiscriminately affects different populations, but socio-economic conditions play a determining role in the prevention and treatment of the disease. According to these parameters, the Navajo reserve is very vulnerable. The inhabitants there are often old because most of the members of the Navajo nation now live in the big cities of the American southwest. It is mainly the elders, ie the grandparents, who live in the "hogans", traditional dwellings or trailers which most often have no running water, electricity or roads. suitable for reaching them. A significant excess mortality among these elders would jeopardize the memory of the Navajo people and with it their knowledge, their language, their techniques.


We also know that covid-19 affects people with fragile health (diabetes, heart disease, etc.) more seriously. These pathologies are also particularly present in general among "Native Americans" and in particular among Navajo: type 2 diabetes and obesity affect more than half of the population. Long before this virus, health conditions and the quality of care on the Navajo reserve were greatly reduced for lack of financial means. There are sixteen health centers on the Navajo nation, of which nine are clinics and seven are hospitals.

A hogan (swelling) on the Navajo reserve
A hogan (swelling) on the Navajo reserve

Social and economic conditions are another vector of fragility. Many residents do not have access to running water, and find themselves without the possibility of washing their hands regularly, as well as without nearby supermarkets to feed families. As the Vice Admiral Jerome Adams, US surgeon general stated at a conference at the White House the week-end of the 11-12 April, thirty percent of the Diné population has no access to water. The National Guard is expected to bring plastic bottle of water within the next days. Housing is also often overcrowded, different generations living in the same household: in my experience, these families often live in ten in substandard houses.


For most of my friends and interlocutors, these structures are due to the persistence of colonialism on Indigenous territories,

If disaster is clearly in sight, Democratic Governor of the State of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham, alerted President Trump on April 2 that the Covid-19 depicting a "time bomb" in Indigenous territory. Federal government, while responsible for assistance to the Amerindian Nations, is dragging its feet. Out of the two trillion dollar budget voted to deal with the pandemic, the Indian Health Services have only been allocated one billion (or 1/2000). A very small sum for the area of the United States where the Amerindians represent nearly 3 million people. Scalded by a painful history and the experience of a persistent racism, the Navajo don't expect much from the Washington authorities.


Faced with a glaring lack of means, self-help groups, called "mutual aid" have spontaneously set up, often by relying on social networks: online pots, shared grocery shopping, various redistributions. These groups are made up of natives and white "allies" who do not trust the federal and tribal authorities, and take care of the material needs of the Diné and Hopi population and share the tasks.


These funds also help in the creation of solutions adapted to the context of the Navajo nation and thought of by those who are particularly familiar with the socio-economic conditions, such as mobile hand washing stations, bottles of water, etc. In this context, the watchword "plant your food and be self-sufficient" comes up constantly. For this, various farmers offer videos or fact sheets distributed on Facebook or Instagram. These mutual aids seem to call into question the distinction often made between "urban" (urban Indigenous) and "reservation natives. " (rez Indigenous). Indeed, it is mainly the Dine living in town that do the shopping, organize the equipment and buy the necessary parts for the mobile handwashing stations and bottles of drinking water. Knowing the needs of families and can respond to them and show that they are not "acculturated Amerindians living in the city" (terms used by my Diné collaborators).

Eugénie Clément, currently coordinates the California office of the Institut des Amériques (at UCLA) and is a PhD candidate in Anthropologie at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in the Humanities and Social Sciences research center (UMR Mondes Américains).