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A sign asking Navajo residents to stay safe and warning of a curfew near the Navajo Nation town of Casamero Lake in New Mexico on May 20, 2020.

MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Tyrone Whitehorse, of the Navajo Nation, writes that the coronavirus is wreaking havoc on his community.

Navajo Nation currently has the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate in the United States.

The reservation, which has a population of 173,000 people, has had 4,434 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 147 deaths, making an infection rate of 2.5%.

Whitehorse writes that it’s hard to follow public health guidelines when the reservation is facing “systemic disparities,” like limited access to healthcare, minimal running water, and a lack of protective supplies.

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My name is Tyrone Whitehorse, and I am a member of the Diné Nation, or Navajo Nation from Lechee, Arizona. As is tradition among my people, I would like to introduce myself to you in our customary way so you get a small idea what makes up my identity as a Navajo person: Yá’át’ééh shi k’é dóó shi Dine’é (Hello my relations and fellow Dine people), I am Tł’izíłaní (Manygoats), born for Asdząą Naadąą’łgai Dine’é (White Corn Woman People). My maternal grandfather is Honaagháhnii (One Who Walks Around), and my paternal grandfather is Todich’íí’nii (Bitterwater). This introduction is a cultural presentation that familiarizes you to my clans and informs those who are also of the same or similar clans that they are my family, and lets them know I am theirs and they are my family. Because of this cultural way of introduction, I can immediately identify my relationship to others. Who others would consider a relative; they are my brother or sister, uncle or aunt, grandmother or grandfather. Our familial ties align through our matriarchs and we turn to them for wisdom and gathering. 

The Diné are one of 573 recognized Native American tribes in the United States. Our homeland is found among our four sacred mountains in the southwestern parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. According to our history, we were placed here as protection from outside threats to our people. These windswept mesas and mountains have been a fortress and cradled us to survive almost anything. We survived a forced march to a prison camp in New Mexico from 1860-1864. We survived livestock reduction in the 1930s, assimilation in the 1940s and ’50s, and lean times resulting from corporate land grabs of natural resources. In fact, we have thrived and are among one of the largest tribes in the United States. Although we have been resilient in the past it has left us in a generally precarious situation.

Story continues

Tyrone Whitehorse with one of his grandmothers.

Tyrone Whitehorse

Today, an unseen threat has reared its ugly head in an especially ominous manner over my people. The novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has hit my people especially hard. The infection rate is one of the highest in the United States, along with New York City and New Jersey. As a public health educator myself I have been actively engaged in following the spread of COVID-19 since its discovery in China in late 2019. 

Understanding the threat that novel viruses can have on the human population, I began to warn my family and loved ones of the possibility of an outbreak among our people. I urged them to be prepared for a rush on groceries and commodities and to inform them of ways to prevent the spread of a viral outbreak.

When the virus made its appearance among the Navajo people in March, I called Shimásaní (my maternal grandmother), and Shinalí Asdząą (my paternal grandmother) to hear their thoughts on the matter. Their expressions of fear and anxiety piqued my concern and increased my desire to help my people. 

Talking to his family’s matriarchs inspired him to do more to help

Shimásaní recalled that her grandmother died during the flu pandemic of 1918, leaving her mother an orphan to raise her siblings and recover from the emotional and physical trauma from losing her mother at such a young age.

Shinalí Asdząą reminded me of what disease has done among our people. Diseases that ran through the land at first European contact left the Diné ravaged and afraid of what can happen when there is no immunity in a population against foreign infections. My grandmother both expressed anxiety and fear as another microbial pest threatened our people once again.

Families are putting signs on their doors telling people not to come in because they need to keep their families safe.

Tyrone Whitehorse

These conversations with the matriarchs of my family filled me with a resolve to do more to help my people. It was then I posted a call to action on social media for any and all who wanted to participate to sew CDC-compliant facemasks to send to the Navajo Nation. Within a week I had over 1,000 facemasks to send from individuals who had made masks from Hawaii, California, Utah, New York, and Florida; within a few weeks thousands of masks had been sent. 

When the coronavirus crisis hit across the country, there was a rush on grocery stores for needed supplies such as food and toilet paper. The same urgency hit home, as well. On the Navajo reservation, many people have to drive an hour or more, mostly on dirt roads, to the nearest grocery store. When they got there, much of the supplies they needed were gone already. 

Having few grocery stores results in food scarcity across the reservation

There are only 13 grocery stores on the Navajo reservation to serve an area the size of West Virginia with a population of 173,667 people, resulting in food scarcity. As I began to hear that elders were in need of food, and to decrease their chances of contact with anyone with the virus, a food drive was organized and several truck loads of food were sent to elders on the Navajo Nation.

My efforts to help my Navajo elders caught the attention of other like-minded individuals who all had a desire to help preserve the lives of our Native nation’s storytellers. Soon, there were many people wanting to help and Protect Native Elders (a Native community-focused charitable organization) was born. 

Supplies from Protect Native Elders.

Tyrone Whitehorse

Protect Native Elders aims at serving the most vulnerable people among the many marginalized Native American tribes in the United States — the elderly. Since our inception in April, we have delivered thousands of needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to clinics and hospitals that serve the Navajo nation as well as others around Indian country, as well as food, personal hygiene supplies, water, and hand sanitizer.

During this time, I have had the opportunity to coordinate the delivery of needed supplies and act as an advocate for my Native people across the country. I am reminded of an individual who reached out to me to help secure some supplies for her family member who had contracted COVID-19. This individual was alone in his hoghan, the traditional home dwelling. His mother and sister were both hospitalized, but he was sent home and told to monitor his symptoms because there was not room for him at the local clinic. 

After securing the needed supplies to be delivered, I called the individual to ensure that the supplies would be arriving soon. In our conversation, I could hear the desperation in his voice and his shortness of breath left me feeling saddened, angry, and helpless. In spite of his dire circumstances, he was optimistic and spoke with the dignity of one who has already faced many hardships in life and saw COVID-19 as just one more to overcome. He is still recovering from the effects of the virus.

Nearly 1/3 of families on the reservation don’t have access to running water or electricity

On the Navajo Nation, there is a weekend curfew from Friday evening to Monday morning. These curfews have disrupted the way of life for families and individuals whose income and livelihoods revolve around their livestock and their ability to care for them. Up to 30% of families on the reservation do not have access to running water or electricity. Many individuals live an hour or more away from a clinic or a hospital.

Members of Navajo Nation receiving supplies from Protect Native Elders.

Tyrone Whitehead

I have lost friends who were sent home after testing positive for COVID-19 to self-monitor their symptoms. When they realized they needed to get to a hospital they were unable to get there in a timely manner as they lived an hour away from any healthcare facility. 

Culturally, we are a tight-knit, family oriented society. It is not uncommon to find multi-generational homes where up to three, even four generations live under one roof. When public health experts inform us that the way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is through thorough hand washing and social distancing, we find it difficult to do so. Many cannot even wash their hands under a faucet with running water, or cannot socially distance from their loved ones living in the same home. 

We can help each other through this

Signs that read “Please stay away, we are trying to keep grandma safe” are found on homes throughout the reservation. Like much of the country, we are trying to survive this pandemic the best way we can, but we lack many of the resources that the rest of the country has.

A road sign outside Bloomfield warns Navajos to stay home during their nation’s 8pm to 5am curfew to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID 19), New Mexico, in April 2020.JPG

REUTERS/Andrew Hay

It’s challenging to follow public health guidelines against such systemic disparities. Access to healthcare, a lack of critical infrastructure like running water, electricity, and paved roads, and cultural norms are all part of the complex causes of the spread of COVID-19 among my people. 

The blame seems to be passed from one party to another, but that’s not what matters at this point. 

What matters is what we can do now to help one another. We seek only to preserve the lives of those who are the most vulnerable among our people — our storytellers, our wisdom keepers, our elders. Our future for us lies in the wisdom found in our elders. I invite you to help us preserve their lives by making a contribution to protectnativeelders.org. Thank you.

Current needs on the reservation include PPE such as gowns, N95 face masks, hand sanitizer, bottled water, and water containers. Donations can be made at protectnativeelders.org.

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