Last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the Navajo Nation worse than just about anywhere else in the United States or the rest of the world. Infections on the country’s largest American Indian reservation soared, reaching the highest per capita rate in the U.S. in May.
“Our people out here were hit very hard, and it spread like wildfire in our community,” said Jeff Begay, a business consultant living in the tiny community of Navajo Mountain, Utah.
Begay, who is Navajo, said federal aid on the reservation has been slow and ineffective. More than 550 people on the reservation have died from COVID-19. Even in remote Navajo Mountain, Begay said there was an outbreak of four cases at a nearby church earlier in the pandemic.
In mid-May, the Nation’s infection rate was 2,304 cases per 100,000 people – one in every 43 Navajos on the reservation had contracted COVID-19. As help from the federal government lagged, nonprofits like Doctors Without Borders stepped in to fill the void.
Normally known for providing medical aid in warzones, the organization launched a rare U.S. operation on the Navajo Nation, sending a team of medical professionals to help with infection prevention and offer technical support in health facilities.
Unemployment and poverty are rampant. A third of families on the Nation don’t have running water, making hand-washing difficult. Many Navajo households are multigenerational and in hard to reach areas, giving the virus an easier path to vulnerable elders living far from health services.
Medical facilities are few and far between on the reservation, and the percentage of Natives without health insurance remains higher than that of any other racial or ethnic group. Despite a more than 10 percent decrease in the Native uninsurance rate under the Obama administration, it has remained flat under Trump.
The conditions that are allowing the coronavirus to ravage the Navajo Nation – from poverty to poor health care to inadequate water infrastructure – are the result of decades of federal policies that have left the reservation’s living standards behind those of every U.S. state. And under the Trump administration, they have remained the same or gotten worse.
“Tribes have been pushed aside by this administration,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a video interview shortly before he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in August. “We had to take this administration to court just to get our share of relief funding from the CARES Act.”
The Nation and 10 other tribes sued Trump’s Treasury Department in April, arguing that the $8 billion in coronavirus relief allocated for tribal governments should go to federally recognized tribes and not the for-profit Alaska Native corporations.
Last month, federal judges ruled the Alaska Native corporations aren’t eligible to receive CARES Act funds. The Navajo Nation received $600 million. However, that money came with burdensome restrictions requiring it only go toward “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency” – nothing to do with generations of federal neglect.
Navajo Nation leadership wants to use those funds to build water and electrical infrastructure, among other projects, to gird the reservation for a continued fight against the coronavirus and future pandemics. But constructing broad, new infrastructure takes more time than the CARES Act allows – all the federal money must be spent by Dec. 30.
Politically, the Navajo Nation leans blue. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won over 56 percent of the vote in the 10 counties that include parts of the reservation. In all, the Nation comprises over 27,000 square miles and 173,000 residents spread out across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The majority of Navajos vote in the swing states of Arizona and New Mexico.
Despite the reservation’s Democratic tendencies and its struggles under the Trump administration, the president and his surrogates are making a play for this part of Indian Country. The far-right organization Turning Point USA put up billboards near the reservation’s southern border on Interstate 40 in Arizona reading “Navajos For Trump.”
The administration has an ally near the top of the Navajo Nation’s government: Vice President Myron Lizer, who has appeared at Trump events and taken heat for giving the impression that Navajo leadership was campaigning for the president.
“We for years fought congressional battles with past congressmen and senators that were part of a broken system that ignored us,” Lizer told the 2020 Republican National Convention. “That is, until President Trump took office.”
However, the reality of the past four years paints a different picture.
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Coal miners were a major target of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, especially those in Appalachia.
“I’m thinking about the miners all over this country,” Trump told a crowd in West Virginia four years ago. “We’re gonna put the miners back to work. We’re gonna put the miners back to work. We’re gonna get those mines open.”
Energy is a major industry on the Navajo Nation, too, with coal mining accounting for hundreds of jobs. Many miners bought into Trump’s message, as did Jeff Begay. He had high hopes for Trump’s goal of producing more products and energy in the U.S.
“I applauded him for a while,” Begay said. “And then I saw the negative turnaround. … We have more enemies internationally, globally, than we did before.”
One of the Navajo Nation’s largest economic casualties of the Trump era happened about an hour’s drive south of Begay’s home in Navajo Mountain, Utah, when Peabody Energy shut the Kayenta coal mine in 2019.
The Navajo Generating Station, which used coal from the mine and once helped power Los Angeles, closed that same year. All told, the two closures took over 900 jobs in a region where work is scant – Navajo officials and academics often estimate unemployment on the reservation to be as high as 40%-50%.
“It hurt us seriously,” said Begay, who chairs the Dineh (Navajo) Chamber of Commerce. “Because of the fossil fuel-environmental issues, the fossil fuel industry started to go downhill. Here, it just slammed shut.”
The economic decline on the reservation is nothing new, said Andrew Curley, a Navajo geographer and assistant professor at the University of Arizona. “A lot of what was happening before is continuing. People who can’t find jobs leave.”
Aside from work in the public sector, Curley said, many jobs on the Navajo Nation are in the service industry or involve the extraction of coal, oil or gas – sectors devastated by the coronavirus. While there’s little available economic data specific to the Nation, Curley noted that communities of color are disproportionately affected when service industry jobs dry up, as they have amid COVID-19.
And as for the coal industry’s decline under Trump, Curley said it’s part of a historical pattern that the Navajo Nation bears the burden of after offering its land for resource exploitation.
“It’s a colonial dynamic where the state preys on its vulnerable communities,” he said.
If the U.S. is truly moving beyond coal and other fossil fuels, the Navajo Nation faces major historical obstacles in building an economy for the future.
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Centuries of federal action, inaction and misguided policies paved the way for the Nation’s infrastructure issues. One proclamation from over 50 years ago has particularly haunting effects today.
In 1966, the Navajo Nation and Hopi tribe had a dispute over a large swath of land in northeast Arizona. Both tribes were claiming the over 1.5 million acres of high desert was theirs.
In hopes of easing tensions and pushing the Navajos and Hopis to negotiate, Robert Bennett, then-commissioner of the federal Indian Affairs office, stepped in. His solution: Halt all development in the contested region.
For the nearly 8,000 Navajos living there, the act that became known as the Bennett Freeze meant they couldn’t build new homes or even make critical repairs to existing structures – stymying development in an area the size of Delaware.
The development ban lasted more than 40 years until President Barack Obama repealed it in 2009. Even a decade after the Bennett Freeze’s repeal, the effects of it and other federal policies continue to shape the Navajo Nation’s struggles.
“The freeze is over, but the land remains the same,” Curley said. Today, more than 20,000 people live in the contested area.
One of the biggest impacts is a lack of water – a third of people on the Navajo Nation don’t have a sink or toilet, forcing them to haul water by car or on foot.
The Nation and other rural communities of color have largely been left out of federally funded infrastructure projects throughout history, said George McGraw, founder and executive director of the human rights nonprofit DigDeep. Even a New Deal program specifically intended to bring water to small, rural communities largely favored those that were white, he said.
“We still see the legacy of that today,” McGraw said. “Race is the strongest indicator in 2020 of whether or not you and your family will have a tap and a toilet in your house in the richest democracy on earth.”
Navajos are 67 times more likely than other Americans not to have running water in their homes, according to DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project. Communities with poor water access have “dramatically” worse health outcomes, McGraw said, due to everything from poor sanitation to an increased reliance on sugary beverages in lieu of water, causing higher diabetes and obesity rates.
On top of the health issues, lack of basic utilities causes economic woes, too, he said.
“It’s hard to have a steady job if you can’t rely on the basics,” McGraw said. “Communities including the Navajo Nation are kind of left fighting for things that other parts of the country got for free, but with both hands tied behind their back.”
Limited water access created hygiene and health issues that exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic on the reservation, showcasing what many tribal members say is just the latest example of federal neglect. But when it comes to improving life on the reservation, there’s much debate among Navajos over exactly how to move forward.
One thing Navajos from many political persuasions do agree about, though, Curley said, is considering their ancestors’ independence as a model for the future. Realizing that vision, however, will require the Nation to strike a balance between reliance on the U.S. government and its autonomy.
“Republicans and leftists,” Curley said, “both realize there’s an idea of the Nation being self-sustaining before U.S. capitalism took hold.”
Such a way of life is possible in the Nation’s future, but it’ll require more Navajos having running water.
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