Numbers tell us least when they are applied to people. Numbers are great for tracking speed and size. But please bear in mind, these dates and numbers are all about people, people of the Navajo Nation, 175,000 of whom live on Dine Bikeyah, the Navajo lands that stretch across much of Arizona and New Mexico and northward into Utah.
On March 20, the Navajo Nation went into lockdown after just 14 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed. A stay-at-home order was issued and an 8pm to 5am curfew was put into effect. Four weeks later, on April 18 there were 1,197 confirmed cases and 44 deaths. Then came May, which ended with the Navajo Nation surpassing even the previous hottest of the American Covid-19 hotspots, New York City. On June 11, with the peak of the outbreak probably over, the number of reservation-wide cases totaled 6,275, and the death toll was approaching 300, and caseloads were still growing at a rate of close to 400 a day.
As I said, numbers really can show us speed and size, and they can at least suggest intensity. Native Americans make up a bit over 5 percent of the population of the State of Arizona, but have suffered 12 percent of coronavirus deaths. In New Mexico, the Native American share of the population is 11 percent but 57% of the deaths have been Native Americans.
But what the numbers don’t disclose is the impact. Shiprock, New Mexico, population 8,300, is home to the largest Chapter, that is, community of Navajos. Chapters are like extended families which means, as our guest today, journalist and teacher Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi has written: almost everyone in Shiprock knows someone who has struggled with COVID-19 or died from it.
Like the family that lost a mother and a father and a brother. But the surviving siblings couldn’t go to the funerals because they were infected with the coronavirus. And those who could attend, couldn’t hug, couldn’t even shake hands, even mourning must be done at social distance.
Lives end. Life doesn’t. Few peoples know this better than Native Americans. In the midst of the terrible statistics and worse human specifics, the Navajo Nation is fighting to survive.
Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi is a multi-award winning Diné journalist from Teec Nos Pos, Ariz. She was the sports writer for the Navajo Times for over 10 years. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, the Salt Lake Tribune and others. Sunnie is also a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Writing at the University of New Mexico and a core writing instructor. She has a master’s degree from Northern Arizona University in Rhetoric, Writing, and Digital Media Studies. She is a fifth-generation Navajo rug weaver.