Hit Hard by Covid-19, the Navajo Nation Finds ‘Strength in Sovereignty’

The tribe’s resourceful efforts to protect its people might help the Navajo Nation avert the worst projected outcome of this pandemic.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

Among Indigenous groups in the United States, the Navajo Nation, the largest tribal nation in the country, has been the hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak, with 45 deaths and 1,321 confirmed cases as of this morning. Of the confirmed cases, 714 were in Arizona. But despite the many odds stacked against them, residents of the Nation are taking action to protect their people in the hopes that their resourceful efforts might help avert the worst projected outcome of this pandemic.

Keeping Vigil/ Navajo Kinaalda Cake/Navajo Indian Ceremonies
Access to healthcare is often limited within rural communities, but tribal nations and organizations face an additional burden given that Indian Health Services (IHS), the federal program that provides primary care to millions of American Indians and Alaska Natives, is notoriously underfunded and ill-equipped. Photo by Donovan Shortey.

Early community spread of the virus in the Navajo Nation has been linked to a gathering of the Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene Zone in Chilchinbeto, Arizona in early March, as dozens of individuals who attended the service have since tested positive for Covid-19.

The Nation reported its first confirmed case on March 17. Just five days later, the number of confirmed cases on the Nation — which encompasses over 27,000 square miles across Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico — had increased to 26. On March 11, the Nation’s Commission on Emergency Management declared a Public Health State of Emergency, ordered all residents to shelter in place, and established a nightly curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., seven days a week until further notice.

Despite the stringent measures that the tribal government has enforced in order to limit social distancing and mitigate community spread of the virus, the number of confirmed cases within the Navajo Nation has continued to grow on a daily basis.

“We’re in the hot zone right now,” says Jourdan Bennett-Begaye (Diné), Washington editor of Indian Country Today, in reference the Navajo Nation. “We have elders who hold our knowledge and our stories, who are so important and dear to us, and who are at risk of Covid-19. We need to take this seriously.”

Navajo citizens are facing many of the same challenges that communities across the country and around the world have been confronted with due to the rapid spread of the deadly virus. Hospitals and health clinics in the region are facing rapidly deteriorating supplies of protective equipment, there is a shortage of personnel, and few ambulances and emergency vehicles are available to transport patients who fall ill. Local health clinics have limited abilities to test for the coronavirus, and even fewer facilities have the lab resources necessary to process those tests.

In addition to the burden that Covid-19 has placed on medical facilities and the healthcare system on tribal lands, this novel coronavirus has already exposed and exacerbated many of the devastating impacts of settler colonialism and capitalism on indigenous peoples.

“All the painful markers of capitalist colonialism are present right now, in how we’re seeing this impact native communities.” Desiree Kane (Miwok), Digital Content Editor/Director of Pollen Nation Magazine, said during an online briefing sponsored by Crushing Colonialism earlier this month.

On some parts of the Navajo Reservation, families do not have access to running water or electricity, making it difficult for individuals to protect themselves or their loved ones by washing their hands and limiting their abilities to stay informed and up-to-date through news or social media.

Access to healthcare is often limited within rural communities, but tribal nations and organizations face an additional burden given that Indian Health Services (IHS), the federal program that provides primary care to millions of American Indians and Alaska Natives, is notoriously underfunded and ill-equipped.

IHS oversees 12 health centers in the Navajo region, servicing a Navajo population of over 350,000 individuals. “We cover the entire southern tier of the Navajo Nation at the Winslow Indian Healthcare Center,” Dr. Gregory Jarrin, general surgeon at Winslow Indian Health Care Center in Arizona, said in an interview with KNAU radio. “We have upwards of 18,000 or 19,000 patients we take care of,” some of who, he says, live up to 85 miles away from the clinic.

Long distances from hospitals can have a huge impact on how soon a patient can get access to critical care for an illness that can rapidly change from mild to extremely severe. By April 1, three patients within the Winslow community had died from Covid-19. As Dr. Jarrin noted, none of them had reached the clinic alive.

Navajo Warrior Family
The higher rate of pre-existing health conditions and the fact that households within Native communities frequently span multiple generations and elders are often primary caregivers for young children, have been key factors in the rapid spread of the virus on the Navajo reservation.Photo by Donovan Shortey.

As the need for medical care increases as a result of Covid-19, health facilities serving communities on reservations and tribal lands will likely be overwhelmed, putting the country’s indigenous population, which already suffers from disproportionate rates of diabetes and other chronic medical conditions, at even higher risk.

The higher rate of pre-existing health conditions and the fact that households within Native communities frequently span multiple generations and elders are often primary caregivers for young children, have been key factors in the rapid spread of the virus on the Navajo reservation. But, while social distancing protocols are vitally important to protect community health, they also prevent tribal members from gathering for ceremony, powwows, or funeral rites.

Bennett-Begaye described this inability to come together as an “additional loss” that traditionally communal peoples are suffering at a time when so many are already grieving. She noted that the widespread uncertainty and isolation that people are experiencing during this moment will likely have an adverse impact on the mental health of countless community members as well.

The economic impacts of the pandemic also pose a unique threat to indigenous peoples in the US. Many tribal nations and organizations are dependent on programs and services provided by the federal government, and as the threat of an impending recession grows, some rightfully fear the potentially devastating impact that an economic downturn might have on those vitally important, government-funded social services. Casinos have been shut down, and many tribes that own and manage casinos are now without a primary source of revenue. The funds that are allocated from casino profits to support tribal education, infrastructure, government operations, and social welfare programs have disappeared.

As tribal economies are affected by the pandemic, Bennett-Begaye said, “Tribes are trying to figure out how reliant they are on the federal government, and what sources of revenue for their economies they have.” She continued, “Casinos are being closed; education systems are being affected. It’s just everything, at this point. It’s like a domino effect, and we don’t realize how interlinked [everything] is, until what’s happening right now.”

In late March, as part of its $2 trillion relief package, the federal government did allocate $8 billion to tribal governments in order to support their response to the pandemic, as well as an additional $2 billion to be shared between IHS, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Native American Programs, and the US Department of Agriculture’s food-distribution programs on Indian reservations. However, a Democratic aide involved in securing economic relief funding for tribes as part of the federal government’s stimulus package told Huffington Post, “Tribes were an afterthought. The White House and Republicans would have been satisfied with zero.”

Tribes are required to apply to receive funding from the aid package. The form, which asks applicants to list either their tribal population or number of shareholders, has led to outrage amongst some tribes in the Lower 48. They argue that the stimulus funds should be allocated towards community services within tribal nations, rather than to support tribal-owned corporations like those established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

Additionally, as Indian Country Today reported, more than a dozen federally recognized tribes “don’t have contracts to run federal programs on their reservations,” and will likely be ineligible to receive the government aid. The federal aid package offers no relief whatsoever for the hundreds of tribes that the federal government deems “non-recognized.”

In a statement issued on April 2 by the California Valley Miwok Tribe’s Chairwoman, Silvia Burley declared, “Our Tribe, like many others throughout the United States, will not see a penny from the federal stimulus package despite our members’ dire need and right to these funds. An ongoing dispute with the Bureau of Indian Affairs over our Tribe’s right to self-govern has placed our Tribal members’ health and safety, including that of my mother –– the last full blood Miwok Indian, at immediate risk.”

For federally recognized and unrecognized tribes alike, the uncertainty surrounding employment, housing, and food access is increasing every day. Meanwhile, many Native communities remain skeptical of the federal government given its long history broken promises to Native American tribes and its continued disrespect towards and disregard of indigenous sovereignty.

Desiree Kane described the current situation as “a microcosm of the past hundreds of years, where the system is working exactly as it should to directly impact us [indigenous peoples] negatively.”

The current pandemic is a painful reminder of the historical, intergenerational, and ongoing trauma that was caused –– and that is perpetuated –– by settler colonialism in the United States. Many Native people see Covid-19 as the latest of a series of epidemics that have decimated indigenous populations — a history that began when early settlers in North America weaponized the smallpox virus against the continent’s Native populations, intentionally exposing them to a disease to which they had no immunity.

While the coronavirus and other recent pandemics (such as Hantavirus or the Spanish Flu) may not have been so explicitly weaponized against indigenous peoples, Native communities have continued to be disproportionately impacted by sweeping epidemics over time. For example, according to the National Institutes of Health and as reported by the LA Times, “During the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 flu…the death rate for Native Americans who contracted the disease was four times that of all other racial and ethnic groups combined.”

The trend seems similar this time as well. On April 16, the Arizona Department of Heath Services reported that Native Americans — who make up about 4.6 percent of the state’s population — comprised 20 percent of Covid-19 deaths where race and ethnicity of the victims were known.

Like many other tribal, local, and state governments, the Navajo Nation has acted quickly to implement protocols to mitigate the crisis in the absence of a centralized government plan, recognizing that the federal government’s generally slow response to Covid-19 will likely cost thousands of lives. Similarly, indigenous journalists across the country are working hard to provide accurate information to their communities, filling in the gaping holes where mainstream media’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic has failed to attend to the specific needs and particular concerns of indigenous peoples.

In addition to the shelter-in-place protocol, nightly curfew, weekend curfews, closure of all non-essential services, and establishment of checkpoints to prevent non-residents from entering and potentially exposing the community, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye described how Navajo leaders and community members are also organizing donation drives, delivering food and supplies to elders’ homes, sewing handmade masks and protective gear for health workers, and staying connected through social media and online talking- and prayer-circles. These organized responses illuminate the Navajo’s community-based values; by gathering resources and creating innovative solutions to protect their communities, Bennett-Begaye said, tribes are “finding strength in sovereignty.”

Desiree Kane echoed Bennett-Begaye, vehemently rejecting what New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham reportedly told President Donald Trump, that Covid-19 could “wipe out” some tribal nations.

“Our communities hold the oldest knowledge of how to survive on this continent,” Kane stated. “We already know how not to give into apathy in the face of adversity…No matter what happens, we will not be wiped out.”

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