14.06.2020 RC Studios

Struggles of America’s Native People Unmasked

The world has long romanticized the American Indian. Western films depict wise leaders dressed in full regalia, or fierce renegade warriors on horseback, fighting to reclaim their sovereignty. We are familiar with stories of genocide through disease, stolen land, and attempts long ago to eradicate a race and its culture. 

Today, in their T-shirts and jeans, the Navajo (Dine’) people are reliving the devastation of disease in their community. This time, it’s not Columbus and smallpox, it is China and COVID-19. The Navajos have experienced more cases of the coronavirus per capita than any state in America. 

The Navajo Nation has over 300,000 registered members with about 170,000 people living on the four corners area reservation. So far, 9,315 people have tested positive for COVID-19. The death toll on August 12, 2020, was 473. Hardest hit have been the elders, who are valued for preserving Native culture and language. High rates of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity add to their risk factors. 
Gilbert Brown, a senior living on the reservation in Lupton, New Mexico, said, “Many are going to the bars at night, and bringing the virus home to their families.” Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation mandated wearing face masks, curfews, and recently lifted weekend lockdowns.

Gilbert Brown chose to leave the Gallup/Lupton area to visit his son in Utah. The 79 year old says the area is, “too much of a hot spot.” He left Thursday before the 8:00 PM curfew was implemented on Friday, May 8, 2020, and will stay away until “things cool down.”  For many others, leaving home is not an option. Between 30 and 40 percent of people living on the reservation lack running water, and must leave home to truck in the water needed for basic health and hygiene. 

Brown no longer has to make water runs. He was one of the first to receive running water from revenue generated by Navajo casinos. Fire Rock Casino opened in 2008 amid protests that the land is sacred, and that there would be increased social ills. COVID-19 temporarily closed all four Navajo casinos, which are scheduled to reopen July 15, 2020. 

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the CARES Act, 600 million dollars is set aside for the Navajo Nation. This money must be spent by December 30, 2020. 5.1 million of these dollars will be used to extend waterlines to 260 homes. Healthcare and burials will also be addressed. 

Non governmental organizations are also helping. Doctors Without Borders is working inside the United States for the first time; currently offering assistance to the Navajo Nation through June 2020. The people of Ireland have gifted the Navajo and Choctaw Nations over 4 million dollars for charity shown to them during the potato famine nearly 175 years ago. South Korea honored Navajo Korean War veterans by donating 10,000 face masks and PPE supplies. Many private citizens are donating food, supplies, money, and sanitation services. Even Hollywood has stepped up. Actor Sean Penn, and Spanish American chef Jose’ Andres have been on the reservation helping, while we, the outsiders, are finally able to see more realistic imagery of America’s Native people. 

As the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic shines its global light on the Navajo Nation, will the resources, generosity, hearts and prayers of a grateful world help the Dine’ people to help themselves? Time will tell.