As told to Scientific American

When a family member dies, we the Diné, whom Spanish conquistadors named the Navajo, send a notice to our local radio station so that everyone in the community can know. Usually the reading of the death notices—the names of those who have passed on, their ages, where they lived and the names of their matrilineal and patrilineal clans—takes no more than five minutes. It used to be very rare to hear about young people dying. But this past week, I listened to 45 minutes of death notices on KGAK Radio AM 1330. The ages ranged from 26 to 89, with most of the dead having been in their 30s, 40s or 50s.

I am in shock. The virus entered our community in March, through a Nazarene Christian revival in Arizona. They brought in vanloads and busloads of people from across the Navajo Nation for the gathering; then all those vans and buses returned them to their respective communities, along with the virus. There were immediate deaths because the medical facilities were not ready for it. More than 300 Navajos have already died of COVID-19, and the disease is still spreading.

I am a Diné storyteller and keeper of traditions. I live alone in a hogan, a traditional octagonal log house, in Chi Chil Tah, meaning “Where the Oaks Grow,” after the Gambel oaks indigenous to this region. Officially known as Vanderwagen, the community lies 23 miles south of Gallup, N.M.. The pandemic reached the area in late April. On May 1, the governor of New Mexico evoked the riot act to block off all exits into Gallup to stop the spread of the virus, and only residents could get in. The lockdown extended to May 11. It was not so bad the first week, but then we started to run out of food and water.

The groundwater in parts of Vanderwagen is naturally contaminated with arsenic and uranium; in any case, few of us have the money to drill a well. Normally, my brothers and my nephew haul water in 250-gallon tanks that are in the back of a pickup truck. At Gallup they have a high-powered well; you pay $5 in coins, put the hose in your tank and fill it up. You haul that home, dump that into your cistern, and you have water in your house. Without access to Gallup, people began to run out of water—even as we were being told to wash our hands frequently.

My hogan has electricity but no running water. My brothers bring me water, and they put it in a 75-gallon barrel. I drink that water, and I wash with it, but I also buy five gallons of water for $5, in case I need extra. I typically use a gallon of water a day, for everything—cooking, drinking and washing up. My great-grandmother used to say, “Don’t get used to drinking water, because one of these days you’re going to be fighting for it.” I have learned to live on very little.

We have a lot of cancers in our community, perhaps because of the uranium. And we have many other health issues that I think makes this virus so viable among us. We have a lot of diabetes, because we do not eat well, and a lot of heart disease. We have alcoholism. We have high rates of suicide. We have every social ill you can think of, and COVID has made these vulnerabilities more apparent. I look at it as a monster that is feasting on us—because we have built the perfect human for it to invade.

Days after Gallup reopened, I drove there to mail a letter. Every fast-food establishment—McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s, Burger King, Panda Express, Taco Bell, they’re all located on one strip—had long, long lines of cars waiting at their drive-throughs. This in a community with such high rates of diabetes. Perhaps there wasn’t any food available in the very small stores located in their communities, but I also think this pandemic has triggered a lot of emotional responses that are normally hidden. On the highway to Vanderwagen, there is a convenience store where they sell liquor. And the parking lot was completely full, everybody was just buying and buying liquor. There is a sense of anxiety and panic, but I also think that a lot of Navajo people don’t know how to be with themselves, because there isn’t a really good, rounded, spiritual practice of any sort to anchor them.

COVID is revealing what happens when you displace a people from their roots. Take a Diné teenager. She can dress Navajo, but she has no language or culture or belief system that tells her what it means to be Diné. Her grandmother was taken away at the age of five to a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) boarding school and kept there until she was 18. At school, they taught her that her culture and her spiritual practice were of the devil and that she needed to completely deny them. Her language was not valid: “You have a Navajo accent; you must speak English more perfectly.” Same happened to her mother. Our languages were lost, the culture and traditional practices were gone. That was also when spankings and beatings entered Diné culture. Those kids endured those horrible ways of being disciplined in the BIA schools, and that became how they disciplined their own children.

I meet kids like this all the time—who don’t know who they are. For 35 years I have been trying to tell them, you come from a beautiful culture. You come from one of hundreds of tribes who were thriving in the Americas when Columbus arrived; we had a viable political and economic system that was based on spiritual practices tied to the land. Some 500 years ago, Spanish conquistadors came up the Rio Grande into North America in search of gold. They were armed with the Doctrine of Discovery, a fearful legal document issued by the Pope that sanctioned the colonization of non-Christian territories. Then in the mid-1800s, the pioneers came from the East Coast with their belief in Manifest Destiny, their moral right to colonize the land. As their wagons moved west, the Plains Indians were moved out and put on reservations. When your spiritual practice is based on the land you’re living on, and you’re being herded away from what somebody else would call her temple, or mosque, or church, or cathedral—that’s the first place your spirituality is attacked.

My great-great-great-great-grandfather on my father’s side was captured and taken on what we call the Long Walk to Fort Sumner. Initially about 10,000 Diné were rounded up, and many died on that walk, which took weeks or months, depending on the route on which they were taken. They were imprisoned for four years at Fort Sumner, and released in 1868, because of the Civil War. At about the same time, my great-great-great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side escaped from Colonel Kit Carson at Canyon de Chelly and traveled north with his goats. He came back down to this area at just about the time my great-great-great-great-grandmother escaped Spanish slavery. Slavery was introduced here by the Spanish—that’s never talked about. The children born at Fort Sumner were taken into Spanish families, to be slaves.

We had the Spanish flu in the 1920s, one of many viruses to invade our community. Then in the 1930s there was the Great Depression. We didn’t know that was happening: we did not have money, but we had wealth in the form of sheep. And the government came in and killed our sheep in the Stock Reduction Program. They said the sheep were eroding the land, but I think they did it because the sheep made us self-sufficient, and they couldn’t allow that. We had spiritual practices around our sheep. Every time we developed self-sufficiency and a viable spiritual practice, they destroyed it. My mother said they dug deep trenches, herded the sheep and massacred them.

A tuberculosis epidemic in the 1940s took away my mother's parents. My great-grandmother, a healer and herbalist, had hidden my mother from the government agents who snatched Diné kids to put them into BIA boarding schools. My mother became a rancher, a prolific weaver, a beautiful woman who spoke the language. She did not speak much English. She died at 96; my great-grandmother died at 104. Now, in our community in Chi Chil Tah, there are no more traditional healers; the oldest person is my great-grand-aunt, who is 78. I am the only traditional Diné storyteller.   

Now that we are talking about issues of race in America, we need to also talk about the Native American tribes that were displaced. There is a reservation in upstate New York of the Iroquois people—all of 21 square miles. How much land were the Iroquois originally living on? Who was living in what is now Massachusetts? What about Pennsylvania? What about all the states under the umbrella of the United States? Whose land are you occupying? Abraham Lincoln ordered the massacre of 38 Dakota men the day after Christmas, the same week he signed the Emancipation Proclamation; they call him Honest Abe. They don’t talk about the dark side of things, and I think that is what COVID has revealed—the dark side. We see a police officer putting his full body weight on the neck of a black man. And suddenly everybody goes, Wow! What have we evolved to?

It seems to me that COVID has revealed a lot of truths, everywhere in the world. If we were ignorant of the truth, it is now revealed; if we were ignoring the truth, it is now revealed. This truth is the disparity: of health, wellbeing and human value. And now that the truth has been revealed, what are we going to do about it?