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The Navajo Nation 8 Months Later



I celebrated a significant milestone in the midst of a pandemic—my 30th birthday. Strangely enough I don’t feel 30, but that is perhaps due to feeling as though I have relived hundreds of years of Navajo history over the past 8 months. It’s as if I’ve been living in the stories from my books, the ones that describe how Native American communities across the nation have been devastated by disease and poverty. As my thoughts continuously turn to my home in Dinétah (ancestral Navajo land), I had the realization that we are living through the stories that we will tell our grandchildren, and I can’t help but ask myself, “What will I tell them?”

This pandemic is impossible to ignore because it has enveloped every aspect of reservation life.

I will tell them that the tension in the community was palpable. Close knit gatherings that were once commonplace and are key component of our culture have come to a screeching halt as COVID-19 ravages the Navajo Nation like a cyclone, leaving fractured communities and devastation to all who cross its path. In contrast to the attitudes of the broader U.S. this pandemic is impossible to ignore because it has enveloped every aspect of reservation life, including the mundane task of grocery shopping. As soon as you walk into the store, you are stopped by local personnel who take your temperature and allow you to pass if the results come back normal. It is nearly impossible to find someone who has not been affected by coronavirus, whether that be relatives, friends, or community members who have contracted the disease. Losing our elders has been especially painful. Unlike mainstream American culture where the youth flouted CDC recommendations and shelter-in-place orders because, “only old people get it (coronavirus),” we are fighting hard to protect our elders because they are the keys to our history. They are the sacred keepers of our language, traditions, and ancestral knowledge, all things we cannot afford to lose and are trying to pass on to the next generation despite the physical distance that separates us. In addition to the cultural aspect, what greatly concerns me is how many of our elders are struggling at this time. I take some comfort in knowing that organizations such as adopt a native elder continues to provide items needed to weather the pandemic.

It is a reminder of the strange paradox of being indigenous in this country: You are the first people of this nation, but are also the last to be remembered by the outside world.

Another issue that has been weighing heavily on my mind is distance learning. While this is certainly preferable compared to potentially exposing students and faculty to the virus by in-person learning, Navajo students continue to face barriers in education due to the lack of a key necessity–internet. On the reservation, sixty percent of the population lacks access to reliable internet, and the impact is very visible. I recall being home and seeing students sitting six feet apart under ramadas near the school so they can log on to their classes. Students in rural areas have to resort to logging into class through cell phones, sitting in their vehicles for hours trying to learn and complete assignments. It is something that should not exist in 2020, but it is a reminder of the strange paradox of being Indigenous in this country: You are the first people of this nation, but are also the last to be remembered by the outside world.

I’ll go and do more.

Recently the Navajo Nation entered a three-week lockdown due to the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. Ironically, this lockdown happened in November, when a national holiday that marks the arrival of disease from across the sea is celebrated, disease that devastated the Native American population. I am of course referring to Thanksgiving. As many Americans lament not being able to gather in person, I, much like my ancestors, am choosing a different path. Instead of complaining, I will create and focus on the future I envision for my people. This week will be about rebirth as I honor those who came before me while working to be the change I wish to see in the world. Following in the footsteps of the Navajo leader Annie Dodge Wauneka, “I’ll go and do more.”


Emily McDonnell is a Senior Fellow and participated in the 2017 John Lewis Fellowship. She is  an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation where she lived until she graduated from high school. She recently graduated from Arizona State University with her master’s degree in public administration. Emily dedicates this piece to her grandmother, mother, and all the strong Indigenous women in her life who inspire her to use her voice to bring awareness and advocate for the Navajo Nation and all Indigenous people.