Generations of Diné Healers Face Naayéé’

Farina King

“They say that they are like firemen. They know what they signed up. They must fulfill their call for duty.” This is what Mom told me when I asked why Dad has to continue working in the clinic. We are Diné (Navajo). We come from the Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House) clan. My father is born for the Tsi’naajinii (Black Streak Wood People) clan. He is seventy years old and has been practicing medicine since the late 1970s. He is a family and community medicine physician who retired from the Indian Health Service (IHS) but has continued family medicine practice at Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation for the past several years. I used to joke that he would work until he died but now I fear that every day because of COVID-19 or Dikos Nstaaígíí-19 as we call it in Diné bizaad (the Navajo language).

Service, care, and healing have been my father’s calling. His forebearers were hataałii—Diné healers—before him. Like many others, my father is my hero. I never imagined that he would be a hero on the frontlines against COVID-19. He told me and my siblings in a zoom video meeting, from his trailer in Monument Valley on Easter of 2020, “I do not do what I do because I’m a hero. I do it because I care.” He works with some Diné elders over ninety years old, and some of his patients only speak Navajo—his first language that now only a few medical practitioners in the world know fluently like him.

Because I care.

-Phillip L. Smith

Since time immemorial our Diné ancestors have faced naayéé’, monsters, and they not only survived but also thrived as a people. In Diné oral tradition, the Hero Twins defeated Yé’iitsoh, who was covered in metal, and applied the monster’s broken armor for common purposes such as cutting knives. The twin heroes did not kill all the monsters, which have plagued humanity over time. But generations of Diné heroes have risen and fallen, confronting the monsters of their eras.

While media, stories, and cries of my people and community show the rampage of Dikos Nstaaígíí-19, the coronavirus monster, many have asked why the virus is so prevalent in the Navajo Nation. As a Diné historian and descendant of healers, I trace the intergenerational struggles with monsters, especially one that persists and breeds other threats to Navajos, including COVID-19. This monster is colonialism—the ongoing force to dispossess, displace, and destroy Diné and Indigenous peoplehood, identity, and ties to homelands.

My father’s great-grandparents and grandmother survived the Long Walk, when U.S. soldiers poisoned the waters and burned the crops of Diné families and forced by gunpoint as many Diné as they could to walk hundreds of miles to a prison camp of barren land. Hundreds died on the walk, and thousands died at Hwéeldi, Fort Sumner. After about four years, my ancestors returned to their sacred and beloved homelands, although the U.S. government, railroads, and white settlers curved out much of the land and often framed Navajos as intruders and ungrateful for what the U.S. “gave” them.

My father’s grandmother tattooed her Indian census number on her wrist so that she could always remember it to receive rations for sustenance. Because the rations often included flour and lard, fry bread became a survival food and later a staple. Diabetes and various health disorders have consequentially been epidemics among our people. Almost all of my relatives have diabetes. We have lost several of our precious elders after their legs were amputated due to complications with diabetes.

U.S. officials, missionaries, and settlers separated Diné families to assimilate and “educate” the children, explicitly planning to sever them from their communities and integrate them in mainstream American society through the twentieth century with programs of boarding schools and policies such as Indian relocation and termination. By 1923, American officials established the Navajo tribal government to basically sign off on land and oil leases to white and non-Navajo businesses and government. Navajo lands, waters, and communities have been poisoned and drained by resource extractions such as uranium and coal mining. Cancer has become epidemic among our people and has taken many of my loved ones including my grandparents.

Our sacred and precious waters have been diverted to urban centers and populations, while about 30 percent of people in Navajo Nation cannot access running water better yet clean water. When the basic rule of combatting COVID-19 is to wash your hands, and thirty percent of our people cannot do this so easily, this is why the disease hits the community so hard. When 1 in 5 Navajos have diabetes and a CDC study has found uranium even in Diné babies born in the twenty-first century, this is why our people are so susceptible to serious illnesses and health complications such as COVID-19.[1]

One of the worst uranium mill spills of U.S. history happened down the road from my family’s home sites in Church Rock, New Mexico, in 1979.[2] The Gold King Mine Waste Water Spill of 2015 caused over 3 million gallons of toxic sludge to contaminate our sacred rivers and life lines, the San Juan River and Colorado River. Navajos did not ask for these hazards or hardships. We only seek to exist as Diné, as people of Diné Bikéyah (Navajo lands), our refuge and home. But forces have continued to invalidate our claims to lands, health, and wellbeing.

Not long before the COVID-19 pandemic, our sacred landscapes of Bears Ears and Chaco Canyon came under attack for more resource extraction and exploitation through perpetual efforts to dispossess Navajos, force removal, decimate Diné peoplehood, pollute waters and homelands, and separate Diné families. COVID-19 also threatens the people—killing especially our elders and knowledge bearers and pitting people against us as in the case of the terrorist in Page, Arizona. In early April of 2020, the terrorist threatened to shoot Navajos since he believed that all Navajos carried the coronavirus.[3]

Rather than stirring more hate, fear, and antagonism, let us finally heal as healers in my family have always hoped and pursued—restoring balance, harmony, and reconciliation. Stand together with one another for who we all are—the Five-Fingered Beings. The healers are warriors. According to Diné ancestral teachings, warriors are the ones who care for the sick, feed the hungry, bring wood for the fires, and unite the people. I thank the healers and warriors, my ancestors, Navajo leaders, my father, and those on the frontlines for facing the monsters of today. We can best support them by all working to heal, which requires recognizing the wounds of the monsters from past and present—colonialism, greed, lust, narcissism, hate, and fear—that have harassed us but have also given us the courage to rise and grow stronger by overcoming them.

Since time immemorial, Diné have passed on teachings of Si’ąh Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhǫ́, simply translated as “Walk in Beauty” or “live to old age in beauty.” Healing is an essential part of this never-ending journey and cycle through generations and time, as we constantly seek to restore balance and harmony—hózhǫ́—in all things within and around us.

[1] Laurel Morales, “For The Navajo Nation, Uranium Mining’s Deadly Legacy Lingers,” April 10, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/10/473547227/for-the-navajo-nation-uranium-minings-deadly-legacy-lingers; and Erika Edwards, “In sickest COVID-19 patients, underlying conditions are common, large study finds: High blood pressure, obesity and diabetes are risk factors for severe cases,” NBC News, April 22, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/sickest-covid-19-patients-underlying-conditions-are-common-large-study-n1189906.

[2] Written Statement of the Navajo Nation Prepared for the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on Uranium Mining: Contamination and Criticality and H.R. 3405, the Uranium Classification Act of 2019, July 12, 2019, https://www.congress.gov/116/meeting/house/109694/documents/HHRG-116-II06-20190625-SD013.pdf.

[3] Krista Allen, “Page man arrested after racist Facebook threat,” Navajo Times, April 10, 2020, https://navajotimes.com/reznews/page-man-arrested-after-racist-facebook-threat/.

See also “Farina King: Diné heroes facing monsters through generations,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 2, 2020; and Farina King’s essay, “Diné Doctor,” posted by “Art for Uncertain Times” thanks to a grant from the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts.

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