Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, 44, watching over the volunteer operation in a parking lot that day, said the tribe had not received “one cent” of the $8 billion that was allocated to Native American communities as part of the Cares Act passed in Washington on March 18. Nearly 2,700 people had fallen ill, and more than 80 had died, with the 350,000-resident reservation becoming one of the worst-of-the-worst American hot spots. Almost everyone knew someone who was sick, or someone who had died.
“We’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves,” Nez said. “We’re going to help each other out.”
Nez was nearly through listing the ravages of the coronavirus on his people when something rendered him silent mid-sentence: Two red-tailed hawks soared majestically above, their wings spread wide against an azure sky. He pointed: “Look!”
Men and women in masks, smocks and gloves paused, eyes to the heavens, and let out a “Wooo!” in unison.
A man’s voice broke the silence: “No Huggies!” Everyone snapped back to work.
“We must be doing something right to have this blessing from the creator,” Nez said quietly. “Our ancestors looking upon us to say they’re proud of what we’re doing, helping each other out, just as we did on the long walk.”
Later that day, the money came — $600 million delivered to the Navajo, 10 days after it was promised and more than a month after President Trump signed the relief package into law on March 30. Here, on the reservation where the Navajo tribe was forcefully relocated by government decree in 1868, the infection rate is among the highest in the world, with deaths reaching the level of some states with more than 15 times the population. Navajo leadership says the delay in funding has cost lives, the latest in hundreds of years of injustices delivered to their people, first by the colonial Europeans and now by the U.S. government.
“If we’d gotten it a month ago, we would have made sure we had the rapid testing we’ve been hearing about,” said Myron Lizer, the Navajo vice president who is the main liaison with the federal government during the pandemic. “We’d have ventilators. We would’ve had extra staff come in a lot earlier. I have to believe that we could have saved more lives if we had the money earlier.”
As of Sunday, 3,122 Navajo were positive for covid-19, out of about 17,000 tests. One hundred people had died.
Nez and a caravan of helpers began its trek to Navajo communities before daybreak Thursday, under the light of the moon. It moved from Window Rock, N.M., to Cameron, Ariz., 180 miles through sweeping red rock canyons, twisting mountain roads and past drought-choked riverbeds and numerous isolated one-room homes. Thursday’s mission was to serve the westernmost areas of the nation, with several stops in Arizona: Page, at the Coppermine and LeChee chapters of the reservation; K’ai’Bii’To’ and Tonalea, at the Ts’ah Bii Kin chapter; and in Shonto, Nez’s hometown.
Everywhere the caravan went, the lines were full of Native Americans touched by death and disease.