When Coronavirus Came to Navajo Nation

Listen to this episode

S1: Back in March, Mahela Johns started sending these letters, pleading for help. Is it possible for you to read the one of the notes you said?

S2: Yeah, let me see. Did I send it?

S1: Wahala is Navajo. She was writing to the president of the Navajo Nation.

S2: This is March 19th. I said yet. President Jonathan Nez, thank you for all you’re doing in response to Cauvin 19. I’m writing to encourage you to take one step further and put a shelter in place, order for all of the Navajo Nation. I know thousands of our people are not getting covered. 19 information, especially how life threatening this virus is. And I would strongly encourage you and your administration to put shelter in place. Order. Did you get a response? I didn’t.

S3: Wahala splits her time between Oakland, California, and Black Mesa, Arizona. In California. She was completely locked down talking to her relatives back in Arizona. She worried they weren’t locked down enough. A few days before she wrote to the president, dozens of Navajo church leaders had gathered together.

S1: One pastor was coughing. After the group split up, more people began getting sick.

S2: The information wasn’t out there. I mean, a lot of families don’t have Wi-Fi. They don’t have cell service. You know, I was worried about, like, how how much of our leadership is getting information to communities and taking the seriously so people can self isolate and not have gathering’s.

S1: Now, the lockdown on the Navajo Nation is one of the strictest in the country. From Friday to Monday, no one’s allowed to travel without risking a fine. But the corona virus is still spreading. In the last week, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York and New Jersey to become the place in the U.S. with the highest per capita infection rate in the country. I noticed you the first thing you said was I think it was a greeting. How did you address the president?

S4: Yet a president, Jonathan, says yes and means the whole like air sky. And so you’re acknowledging everything, not just like some person, but everything, the whole what we see in front of us, searing knowledge in the person, but also kind of placing them in the wider world.

S5: Yeah, yeah. That is how we treat one another, that every everything’s going to be good. Everything has not been good on Navajo Nation. Not for the past few months, not for a long time. Today on the show, what the pandemic has laid bare and how what’s happening now is the result of generations of neglect.

S6: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Wahala Johns is used to shuttling back and forth between her home and Navajo Nation and her home in California. She runs a green energy company. She’s been working to bring solar panels to thousands of homes on Navajo and hope reservations. But now, because of the virus, she’s stuck in California. And her days are filled with phone calls, not about her solar company, but about PPE and how to get more of it to her community during normal times. How often are you going back to Navajo lands?

S4: I would say about 50 50 spin here. And then I spend on Black Mesa, where I have a home right before shelter in place when into effect here in Oakland. I had just gotten back from Navajo. So I’ve been here for, I don’t know, maybe eight or nine weeks. Does that feel weird to be in the same place for so long? Yeah, it definitely does. I was planning to go back for a lot of April. Definitely weird.

S1: The last time you were at the Navajo Nation, what did it feel like? Because it was just the beginning of people beginning to think about lockdowns and quarantines. So could you feel that while you were there?

S4: Not so much. I had been I met with a few chapters in our communities about building partnership and doing my work with off grid solar. Because you do green energy work. Yes. And the cut the conversation kept coming up and I think. Yeah. I don’t think people were prepared like, oh, it’s just it’s like kind of what weren’t taking it as serious. But I told my parents and I told my family, I’m like, hey, you know, you all should stock up on food and, you know, make sure to wear mask and gloves. Wash your hands like always. Wash your hands.

S1: Don’t go to gathering’s when you have those conversations. What were they like? Because I know in the early days when I talked to my parents, everyone was sort of like, do we really have to do this?

S4: Yeah, I remember having a conversation with my parents. We were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because my nephew plays basketball, high school basketball. And I was trying to figure out if I could stay longer so I can watch his championship game at the state finals. And my parents told me that they the governor had cancelled the basketball game because it would draw thousands of people from all over because of Koven 19. And I think that’s when everyone was like, what? It was a big surprise because a lot of my people come from the reservation, too. I mean, basketball’s a big thing on Navajo Nation, but also all tribes and the state playoffs are huge, you know, and lots of our teams from Navajo Nation make it into the state playoffs. And my nephew plays. And so they cancelled the game. And my parents were there. We were sitting, you know, we were in the hotel room and they’re like, wow, this is this is wild. And then the other piece was just I think it was almost like a surprise that how quickly Kovik came on to Navajo in a way that because it’s we’re such rural, isolated communities. And, you know, once we heard about the first few exposures, then it’s like wildfire.

S1: You’ve said that stay at home orders are especially tricky on Navajo.

S4: Why is that? It’s hard because if you have to go get water, you know, depending on how much you use, you have to you know, it could take two to three days. You have to go get water for your animals or for your homestead. So there’s that planning that you have to do, make sure you have enough water if you have to. You have to haul water. And then we live in a food desert. You know, we have about 13 grocery stores on Navajo Nation that cover, you know, our land is the size of West Virginia. Most families, they when they do shopping, they go off the reservation at Wal-Mart, at Sam’s Club, you know, and so because that’s where the big box stores are. And so that’s typically what families do. And what I do is, you know, is stocking up on water, stocking up on food.

S1: People live close together, too. Right.

S4: Yeah. It’s it’s tough to self isolate when you live in a homestead with usually multigenerational family members all living under one roof. And then sometimes, like we have homes that are one room homes.

S1: Hogan’s, you know, I understand that your great uncle and his wife died of Kofod.

S4: Yes. How how did they get. I don’t know. You know, that one was a huge surprise when we heard that they weren’t feeling well. You know, we just kept up our prayers that they’re gonna heal from this, that they’re going to, you know, they’re going to overcome this.

S7: Yeah. Sorry. It’s OK.

S4: Losing someone to this virus. It’s it’s you know, it’s heartbreaking. It’s so sudden. And for me, being so far away from my family, you know, when you lose relatives, there’s a process of gathering and. Supporting each other through this tough time and I think being weighed.

S7: It’s hard to do that and to grieve and mourn.

S4: Is the rest of the family? Well, I don’t know. I I think I have to have a I have to check in with them. So I don’t know.

S1: Listening to you talk, it’s clear you’re really sad about what happened with your relatives. I wonder, too, if it makes you angry, though.

S4: Yeah, I mean, I think I mean, I’ve seen the similar feelings from different people who are writing as like people of color and low income and the marginalized communities. Right. About when they do lose loved ones in this situation. It could have prevented, you know, and the kind of sadness and anger I feel that with our nation for a very long time, the fact that, you know, COGAT has highlighted the lack of infrastructure and the lack of everything. And it’s it’s it’s not like it it’s too little. They’re like a little anger, but it’s just like it kind of had a feeling that, you know, our people were just not ready for this. You know, for a pandemic, there’s history here. And and it’s not because we choose to live this way at all. You know, there’s definitely a lack of support from the federal government.

S1: Yeah. I mean, I read this article in The Washington Post and it was about what Georgia looks like as it’s opening back up. Reporter was up an outdoor mall where people were having drinks, having a beer. And there’s this one quote that I can’t stop thinking about from a guy like sitting outside with a friend saying, you know, I think you have to live life. And his friend says, when you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics, I’m not worried. And I wonder when you see comments like that. If there’s if there’s something you want to say to people who are thinking that way.

S4: Yeah, I mean. I mean, that’s all. That’s not new. You know, I think that when you talk about this country, you know, we’ve given up lots of land, indigenous peoples here in the United States for what? In exchange for horrible health care. For like, you know, not having basic infrastructure like water and power. That’s crazy to me. And and I think, like comments like that are just, you know, I feel sorry for those people and I feel sorry for, you know, that we have built a country around ignorance. They don’t understand the interconnection that we all have that is like that is is, you know, that will make us stronger as a nation.

S3: Wahala Johns, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you, Mary. Wahala Johns splits her time between California and Navajo Nation. She is the co-founder of Native Renewables, an organization that brings solar power to Hopi and Navajo homes. All right. That’s the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewett and Jason de Leone. We get help every day from Alicia McMurry and Alison Benedict. Thank you for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.