The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the deep inequities that run through our country, and nowhere is that more stark than on the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation has been the hardest hit Native tribe, with 3,122 positive COVID-19 cases and 100 deaths as of this writing.
After New York and New Jersey, the Navajo Nation has the highest coronavirus infection rate in the U.S.
The lack of critical infrastructure on the Nation has exacerbated the pandemic for the Navajo people. Centuries of federal Indian policies, treaties, and broken promises have resulted in tribal infrastructure that is woefully insufficient, making first Americans the last in line for the ever-elusive American Dream. It is apparent now as COVID-19 numbers continue to climb on tribal lands, more families and clans face the loss of family members, tragically mostly elders.
The loss of historical knowledge held by these elders further endangers the cultural integrity of the Navajo, the largest sovereign tribal nation in the United States. Indian hospitals and morgues are filling up. Local mortuaries are overwhelmed as cemeteries run out of space. This is a tragedy for the Navajo and our entire country.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has taken positive steps to try to mitigate the impact of the virus on the tribal lands which are vast. President Nez placed a daily curfew and weekend 57-hour stay-at-home executive orders in March and April, yet the number of infected individuals and death continues to climb.
Health officials stress the need to wear masks, adhere to social distancing measures and practice proper hygiene. These basics are unique challenges not just for the Navajo Nation, but all tribal nations and reservations.
On the Navajo Nation, the lack of access to clean drinking water forces citizens to drive long distances and wait hours in line to retrieve water and transport it back to their homes. Laundromats are overcrowded, as lines form outside and families move in and out of the tightly packed spaces. There are only thirteen grocery stores in a geographical area of 27,000 square miles, and food deserts exist due to lack of water.
Access to water is the single most substantial challenge for tribal citizens. The Navajo Nation has experienced significant drought, limiting water resources for domestic and livestock uses.
And improper containment at abandoned uranium mines means groundwater that otherwise could be treated if costly facilities were built is instead contaminated with uranium.
This reality for our indigenous people is the USA’s greatest failure to the American Indian.
If we hope to prevent COVID-19 or any other pandemic from ravaging the tribal nations, the U.S. government and states must work transparently and respectfully with the Indigenous people and their tribal governments to ensure access to clean water for all future generations.