Hilary C. Tompkins
In the midst of the coronavirus global pandemic, it is hard not to feel like the world is out of balance. From the Native American perspective, Mother Nature and Father Sky are telling us that the world is not well.
My tribe, the Navajo Nation, has faced a very tough fight against the coronavirus. While we are located in a remote area of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, the virus has found us and taken a serious toll. At last count, the Navajo Nation had a total of 5,044 cases and 146 confirmed deaths, reaching the highest rate of infection per capita in the country. Drastic measures have been necessary given the gravity of the situation.
The Navajo Nation has imposed 57-hour weekend lockdowns, including the closure of grocery stores and gas stations. The Governor of New Mexico invoked an unused anti-riot law to close the border town of Gallup for an extended period of time. Latest reports are that 50 percent of confirmed deaths in New Mexico are Native Americans, including members of the Rio Grande Pueblos.
The disproportionate impact of the virus on Native Americans is not surprising given the tough living conditions on Indian reservations, where modern amenities are lacking, such as adequate housing, healthcare facilities, running water, electricity, and broadband. These substandard conditions allow the coronavirus to spread and thrive. Congress allocated tribal funding in the CARES Act, but bureaucratic delays and legal wrangling has resulted in only a portion of the funding being sent to tribes in need. Tribal leaders already faced challenging circumstances, and now the pandemic has added a new layer of adversity.
Yet Native Americans are strong and resilient. We have survived worse than the coronavirus. Our strength comes from never forgetting the dark chapters of our past. We exist in a constant, dual state of grieving while thriving, remembering our ancestors who suffered for us to be here today. As a result of our millennium-long journey in America, we bring perspective and knowledge that could guide America in this time of turmoil. My Navajo culture believes that sickness strikes when the delicate, harmonious nature of the world is out of balance. Mother Earth and Father Sky are omnipotent, watching over the universe. Traditional Navajo teachings possess substantive knowledge about our existence and livelihood.
I remember in the 1990s when the deadly hanta virus needlessly took the lives of Navajos, and western doctors could not determine the source of the disease. It was the Navajo medicine men who identified the cause based on their keen observations about the higher pinon crop that season, which attracted increased numbers of mice that carried the disease. Our traditional knowledge about achieving harmony with the universe can inform America’s healing in a post-pandemic world. Native Americans are often portrayed as one-dimensional environmentalists, but that is an oversimplification. For example, Navajos are very entrepreneurial and respect the art of striking a good deal. The key in life is finding the right balance between many priorities – sustainability with economic strength, reaping benefits today but also for future generations.
Indian tribes — sovereign nations in their own right — are watching America go through growing pains as a young country, where Americans are not sure who we want to be, giving rise to internal conflict between our liberal and conservative selves. Unfortunately, America’s identity crisis is all consuming and we risk not recognizing that this pandemic is a wakeup call. Instead, we are witnessing more discord with protestors defying quarantine orders based on political ideology, lawsuits filed over tribal CARES Act funding, and debate over whether tribal highway check-points are permissible. Tribes are tired of having to keep fighting in the adversarial arena of America. Chances are that much of the rest of America is tired too.
Native American belief systems tell us that continuing on this path of disharmony is a dead end. It is time for America to get well and avoid more imbalance and sickness. We must seize this moment to recalibrate our national values. America can turn to the First Americans to help guide this country’s path to healing and empowerment. Nothing could be more genuinely American. The first lesson would be that we must listen to what Mother Earth and Father Sky are telling us, as we peer out from over our masked faces, feeling anxious, uncertain, and no longer in the driver’s seat.
Hilary C. Tompkins previously served as the first Native American Solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2009 to 2017. Her views in this op-ed are her own and are not expressed in an official capacity.