Diné Histories of COVID-19, Disease, and Healing

Brief Description:

This is a free, open access syllabus to educate the public about histories and lived experiences of Navajos facing disease and healing through generations. This syllabus helps to contextualize and historicize the disproportionate susceptibility of Navajos to COVID-19 or Dikos Nstaaígíí-Náhást’éíts’áadah and ts’ííh niidóóh (disease) in 2020.

Doctor Dad

“Dr. Phillip Smith, supervisor of three clinics, examines a Navajo baby,” Deseret News, December 4, 1982, photo by Paul G. Barker


Diné Doctor History Syllabus with Dr. Farina King

I descend from a line of Diné healers, hataałii, known as “medicine men” and “medicine women.” In his youth, my father discovered his own dedication to medicine. My father entered medical school, becoming a physician and public health official through the Indian Health Service (IHS). After retiring from IHS, he began working as a family practice physician in the Navajo Nation at Monument Valley. In the Spring of 2020, in his seventies, he was one of the few doctors serving the Monument Valley region. He dedicated his life to service, and he continued to practice and see patients sometimes every fifteen minutes even through the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, he was able to use telecommunications to continue meeting with patients. My Diné father, family, and people have inspired me to create and share this syllabus, materials, and resources about Diné historical experiences and challenges with health crises to help the public to understand the context of the COVID-19 threat to the Navajo Nation today. I have always wanted to tell my father’s stories as a Diné doctor, and I am simultaneously working on a memoir based on our relationship.

I have also been collaborating with artists, including my niece Leah Tiare Smith, to prepare portraits of my father as a physician of a susceptible age working with the Navajo Nation because of honor and love for our people. My father told me, “I am not a hero. I just care,” as he talked about the patients and elders (some over ninety years old) that he has served. He speaks fluent Navajo with them. He knows that his patients need him, so he will be there for them. I hope that this syllabus and related materials and resources will open minds and hearts to support and stand with the Navajo Nation and our Diné families and communities especially during times of crisis. We will explore together and understand the interconnected and intergenerational histories and lived experiences of crisis, disease, trauma, community strength, healing, resilience, and hope. Thank you for your consideration and support. Let’s continue to learn and grow stronger together.

Dr Phil Smith_Leah_Watercolor

Phillip L. Smith, M.D., watercolor by Leah Tiare Smith inspired by Barker’s 1982 photo

Introduction with Terms & Themes

Readings & Materials

Oral Histories