September 7, 2020
by Eugénie Clément, PhD candidate in anthropology at EHESS and coordinator of the California cluster at the Institute of the Americas
Since March 2020, the Navajo Nation has been making headlines around the world as one of the covid19 clusters in the United States.
As of September 5th , the number of people tested positive on the reservation seems to have reached a plateau with 9,891 positive cases and 522 confirmed deaths, an extremely high number for a nation of 173,000 people (equivalent to 3,000 deaths per million! ) This in a context far from being back to normal for the whole of the United States, which has 6,134,790 cases and 185,963 deaths (584 / million inhabitants).
A TERRITORY UNDER PRESSURE
Since the middle of June, I have been living in Gallup, a town in northwestern New Mexico on the border of the Navajo Nation, known as " the most patriotic little city of the United States”. During my previous stays, I lived with different farmers and grassroots activists working on food sovereignty, land and water rights. This was not possible this summer. Meetings are now all conducted through the Zoom platform, local governments - known as Chapter Houses - are closed and physical contact is limited to the bare minimum. Everywhere on the Navajo nation, one can spot signs advising to wash your hands, cover your face and maintain a social distancing. It has now become normal to wear a mask wherever we go and to be careful to avoid physical contact.
Despite Covid-19, life goes on. People find ways to resist, to organize and to help each other. For the purpose of this article, I conducted three formal taped interviews and a dozen informal interviews with farmers and activists asking for their opinion on the effects of the coronavirus on their community, the impact on their work and their daily lives, and the difficulties they encounter. Two interviews were conducted by phone and one face to face. They lasted about an hour each. They took place in the context of rising tension over the presidential elections. The demonstrations against police brutality in many cities have thus found an echo in the mutual aid work carried out within the Navajo nation (whose inhabitants are called Diné). The elections also have an impact on tribal politics, as the President of the Navajo government, Jonathan Nez, supports the Democratic Party, and Vice President Myron Lizer endorses Donald Trump's candidacy and even invited him for an on site visit during his speech at the Republican National Convention.
Linking these interviews with the research I have been conducting since 2016 within the Navajo Nation, I have come to three main conclusions.
A MAJOR DISTRUST OF POLITICAL STRUCTURES
Be it at the national, state or local level, for many of my interlocutors, the response to the pandemic has been disastrous. “We haven’t had any kind of relief effort …we haven’t heard anything: from drinking water to wellness check, or stuff like that. (…) For us, we haven’t had any of this relief efforts, with the exception of a few grassroots organizations(…) We see them more often than we see our own governments.” (Tyrone Thompson, a Diné farmer and educator in Leupp). This type of comment has come up time and time again.
It is common to hear that “the American system is broken”. For them, the American dream would no longer work.
For the people I work with, on the contrary, the “system” works perfectly because it was designed in such a way as to make Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans collateral victims. “This Navajo Nation government is not for us. It is made by the United States, for the United States. It only extracts natural resources and maximizes the Navajo people. We are a group of matriarchal people; everything is supposed to go through the mother's clan”, Tyrone Thompson also commented. Indeed, the Navajo government was built from scratch in 1923 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) a federal institution, following the discovery of the deposit of oil on the Diné lands. Numerous events have since reinforced the Diné's mistrust of American institutions. In 1934, John Collier, then commissioner of the B.I.A, ordered the drastic reduction of the herds of sheep by the mass slaughter of the animals. For the Diné, it was traumatic, the sheep being central in the social, cultural and economic life of their people. The animosity over this decision is still present. On numerous occasions, various actors have affirmed to me the colonial character of this management of herds and the preservation of local ecosystems.
The Navajo Nation executive branch simultaneously endorsing Joe Biden and Donald Trump is another example of how “tribal” political structures don't really make sense. “I don’t believe there is a way to fix the system. I don't care who promises to do what ... I don't think there is a way to fix a system that isn't broken. It works the way it is supposed to. And if we want real change, we have to create our own system. (…) I am worried about the next elections and the results." (Nate Etsitty consultant, designer and educator in permaculture).
The mistrust is so great that many will not vote in the next presidential elections, believing that it does not make sense in a country which lives on their oppression. This brings me to my second point, and the urge to build a strong community around food and water sovereignty.
THE ESSENTIAL "FOOD SOVEREIGNTY”
Despite having received millions of dollars, the Navajo government hasn’t allocated funds to agriculture. Food isn’t considered as an emergency and Indigenous farmers have a hard time finding grants to build their projects, not being able to feed their own people. “It just shows the disconnect that as we’re all running around delivering out food boxes to the people, to hear local leadership saying that growing food isn’t a part of covid relief. Literally, all of the main covid groups, what they’re doing is giving food to people and yet the government doesn’t see the importance of investing in local agriculture.” Kern Collymore member of the relief effort and Trinidadian in-law gardener “Food insecurity was present before, but covid just made it blatant.”
Talking with members from the mutual aid relief fund, one of their first motivations to start the group was providing food to people in need.
The Navajo nation is similar in size to Belgium and yet has only thirteen grocery stores on its territory, so part of it can be considered to be a food apartheid situation. Most of the roads are dirt. At the mercy of the vagaries of the weather, these roads very often become impassable. In anticipation of the arrival of autumn and winter, these conditions are very worrying for my interlocutors: no delivery can take place. How then to feed these families? They urgently need to find sustainable solutions and overcome the food emergency.
The pandemic has demonstrated the significant vulnerability of food networks, as well as the importance of the gray economy when it comes to food.
As Kern Collymore told me: “covid took away low-wage employment for a little while and we saw how important it was for our economies. How important the burrito lady was, or the people running the mutton stand, we saw that economy disappear. I think covid showed people the importance of those types of things.” Seeing how vulnerable their food system is, many Diné are turning to growing their own food, looking for seeds and advice from farmers. They have been, in their own words, “overwhelmingly solicitated, seeing a request for local food and planting”.
The number of deaths also prompted the Diné to come together as a community, to restore traditional values such as K’é, a Diné concept meaning interdependence. For farmers and educators, K’é manifests itself by teaching their community how to grow their own food and, in doing so, becoming a community again. It means creating a community garden and helping families grow their own food in order to be self-sufficient: “(…) across the rez (the Navajo reservation), I see covid has really regenerated interest in food sovereignty…in growing your own food…because people are remembering that food is medicine and we need to become more self-sufficient and we got to eat better and healthier food so that we can be healthier. And when you’re healthier you’re able to fight diseases better.” (Nate Etsitty).
SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE AN EDUCATIONAL TOOL
With social distancing making it harder to meet in gardens, farmers are using social media like Facebook and Instagram to spread their knowledge. They film their lessons on soil preparation, seed growing and more, then post them online. Here, they can interact with their followers and answer their questions. For Nate “posting information online (…) is easier to explain to people. By making videos or Instagram posts even sharing a you tube video, that’s helpful”.
As with new technologies it has negative and positive sides. Many people share content, and the majority of them are from the younger generations, who are dedicated to preserve culture and traditional knowledge. On the negative side, it’s hard to find good access to internet in the majority of Indigenous reservations, another of the structural inequities they face. That includes the Navajo nation; moreover, some people don’t know how to use these technologies, leaving them aside.
As these interviews showed, my interlocutors have distanced themselves from the political authorities, from the local tribal government, to the national presidential elections. This increased awareness reinforced the urge to organize as a community and use mutual aid. Food sovereignty and the use of technologies to share such knowledge are tools that serve to reinforce the community.
Covid, like other catastrophes before, has revealed the already existing holes in the structures. Despite facing tremendous losses, Diné communities continue to show their resilience. As a result of the pandemic, the interest in food sovereignty has grown. As Nate Etsitty stated: “It took us a pandemic. It’s like a cruel and amusing irony. This was really pushing me to get out of my comfort zone and go meet people and be k’éfull. That’s the word: “Be k’éfull”.
Thanks to all the people who contributed to this article. A special thanks to Janene Yazzie, Nate Etsitty, Tyrone Thompson and Kern Collymore.
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).