Nathan Tanner: Taking responsibility for the inequality facing the Navajo Nation

As has been widely reported, the Navajo Nation has lost more to coronavirus than 13 states combined. As of this writing, Navajo Nation has 1,206 coronavirus cases and 48 deaths. This is not, however, due to lack of testing, as they have in fact been more aggressive in combatting COVID-19 than other locales across the country.

While some news organizations claim that poverty in tribal communities created the conditions for coronavirus to thrive, these analyses fail to account for factors that created and presently maintain social stratification in native communities. The Navajo suffer from the effects of pandemic illness disproportionately to non-native populations presently for the same reasons they did historically: systemic inequality caused by colonialism, capitalism and racism.

In his study of the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic among the Navajo, Utah State historian Robert McPherson asserted that the Navajo experienced such a disproportionate influenza mortality rate in the early 20th century because of their spiritual practices and living conditions — e.g., tendency to live close to one another, engage in ceremony that required physical contact and a perceived lack of access to medical attention. However, this historical interpretation neglects the complex system of social stratification the Navajo have persistently encountered since the arrival of the first Euro-American colonists.

In a major way, the Navajo Nation in 2020 is experiencing the prolonged effects of the dispossession of their land, the intentional result of centuries of Euro-American pathogenic genocide, corporate and military expansion and sociopolitical destabilization. It can be assumed that in the absence of the U.S. federal government’s land theft, forcing America’s indigenous peoples onto reservations — what could easily be construed as a form of sociopolitical apartheid — subverting and restructuring indigenous economies, complicating tribal authorization processes, battling tribal nations over sovereignty in court and severely limiting consumer networks (which force people to either live very near one another or travel great distances for essential resources and services), the Navajo would not be troubled by the current coronavirus.

While some may view this as an anachronistic reading of the causes of the current pandemic crisis, you’d be hard pressed to convince indigenous folks — or any serious student of history or sociology — that this is not the case.

In her book, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz cites native historian Jack Forbes as having stressed that, “While living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of the past.” That said, descendants of settlers, like me, can assist Navajo Nation and other tribal communities by doing the following:

1. Urge political representatives to carefully reconsider the eligibility rules they create when crafting policy like the CARES stimulus package. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has described the complications Navajo Nation has had accessing essential federal funds amidst this COVID-19 crisis.

2. Encourage government agencies to collect tribal affiliation in vital statistics. Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear and others have called for increased visibility for native peoples where they have historically been erased.

3. Donate to the Northern Diné COVID-19 Relief Effort, the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, the Tséhootsooí Medical Center — whose PPE Sewing Task Force is visibly demonstrating the power and strength of their tribal community — and other relief organizations and efforts.

Nathan Tanner

Nathan Tanner, Urbana, Ill., is a former Salt Lake City teacher pursuing a Ph.D. in education policy, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign