My father practices medicine in Monument Valley, Utah. I used to joke that he would work until he died, but now I fear that every day since the monstrosity of COVID-19.
We are Diné (Navajo) of the Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House) clan. Our people have always faced the naayéé’ (monsters). In Diné oral history, the Hero Twins defeated Yé’iitsoh and other terrible monsters. Generations of Diné heroes have risen and fallen, confronting the monsters of their eras. We face the monster of colonialism, which breeds disparities including the disproportionate Diné susceptibility to COVID-19.
Navajos have faced ongoing forces to dispossess and displace them from their land, and to destroy their peoplehood and identity. My father’s great-grandparents and grandmother survived the Long Walk, when U.S. soldiers poisoned their waters and burned their crops. They were forced at gunpoint, like many Diné, to walk hundreds of miles to a prison camp on barren land. Hundreds died on the walk, and thousands died at Hwéeldi, Fort Sumner.
After years of incarceration, my ancestors returned to their sacred and beloved homelands. The U.S. government, railroads, and white settlers curved out much of the land and often framed Navajos as ungrateful intruders.
My father’s grandmother tattooed her Indian census number on her wrist so that she could always remember it to receive rations. Because the rations included flour and lard, fry bread became a survival food and later a staple. Diabetes and various health disorders have consequently been epidemics among our people.
In 1923, American officials established the Navajo tribal government because they wanted representatives to sign off on land and oil leases to white businesses and government. Over the years, Navajo lands and communities have been contaminated by resource extractions such as uranium and coal mining. Cancer has become epidemic among our people and has taken many of my loved ones who drank downstream from an uranium mine without warning. While debates over water rights and infrastructure between different officials of federal, state, county and tribal governments never end, Navajos cannot access their water that cases such as Winters v. United States (1908) protect. Thirty percent of Navajos cannot wash their hands during this pandemic, because they have no running water.
Our people are dying from COVID-19 because we are sicker than the general population, and we are sick because we are being poisoned and drained. One of the worst uranium mill spills in U.S. history took place down the road from my family’s home sites in Church Rock, N.M., in 1979. The Gold King Mine Waste Water Spill of 2015 caused over 3 million gallons of toxic sludge to contaminate our life lines of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers. A CDC study found uranium in Diné babies born in the 21st century.
Bears Ears and Chaco Canyon, our sacred landscapes, are under attack for resource extraction. State governments and general populations have not learned from our history. Many continue to be complicit or apathetic, dispossessing us of our land and polluting our waters, all in the name of development. COVID-19 is killing our elders and knowledge bearers. It is pitting people against us as in the case of the terrorist in Page, Ariz., who threatened to shoot Navajos because he believed that we all carried the virus.
We must heal together, not only from COVID-19, but also from our bitter history of colonialism. The healers are warriors, because Diné warriors are the ones who care for the sick, feed the hungry, and unite the people. In order for Navajos and Americans to heal, people must recognize the systematic influence of colonialism. We can defeat the monsters from past and present — colonialism, greed and fear — to rise and grow stronger.
Farina King, Ph.D., is a citizen of Navajo Nation and assistant professor of history and affiliate of Cherokee and Indigenous Studies at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. She is the author of “The Earth Memory Compass: Diné Landscapes and Education in the Twentieth Century” (2018).