How is COVID-19 unfolding in the Navajo Nation (Dinétah)?



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Thomas De Pree's picture
May 31, 2020

The previous annotation opened with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez’s remarks about being forgotten by the U.S. federal government, and the failure of federal actors to recognize their responsibility and respond to the needs of Indigenous nations of the United States. What President Nez said authorizes a common discourse circulating among Indigenous nations around the world about “being forgotten,” and the general ignorance of the nations within which sovereign nations are nested (see IITC Webinar Series). The Indigenous impact of COVID-19 has made the experience of being forgotten painfully apparent. In the previous annotation, I described how recent reportage has displaced this noticeable discursive gap in the absence of the federal government. This annotation amplifies the irony that such structures and processes of forgetting are becoming increasingly visible.

In what follows, I will examine how ignorance and forgetting were enacted by the federal government through a new strategy of the politics of time, as witnessed in the untimely response to the crisis that is rapidly unfolding in the Navajo Nation (Dinétah). To be sure, the delay in federal emergency relief funds incapacitated public health responses across all levels of government—“tribal” and “non-tribal”—but in varying degrees; the impact was acute among tribal government. At a broad scale, what we have witnessed is an inversion of the “capacity building” that was once in vogue in international development discourse in the domains of government and business, and the effective reduction in the U.S. government’s capacity to respond to natural and anthropogenic disasters. I will not speculate on how such extensive incapacitation of government produced a neoliberal lapse that opened up a new space for privatizing ‘essential’ public health services and technologies. Instead I will focus on perceptions of “the lapse” itself, which marks a double meaning as both the passage of time and cognitive failure in memory.

President Nez underscored the urgency of the matter: “Navajo residents are panicking as these numbers rise... We need a lot of help fast from the federal government.” Nez continued by describing the partial access to limited emergency relief funds: “We’re barely getting bits and pieces. You have counties, municipalities, already taking advantage of these funds, and tribes are over here writing our applications and turning it in and waiting weeks to get what we need.” A New York Times report identifies the “delays in receiving federal emergency funds” and the compounding effect of “the requirement that tribal nations, unlike cities and counties, must apply for grants to receive money from federal stimulus legislation.” The report concludes, “the Navajo Nation—among other tribal nations — has faced crippling delays in receiving emergency funding” (NYT). An Arizona Congressman, Greg Stanton, echoed Nez’s concern using a similar vocabulary of timing: “Well, I’m very frustrated. I’m angry we’re waiting. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. The tragedy on the Navajo Nation is happening right now, in real-time. This is not the time for delay.”

This is not the time for delay. It bears repeating. The prevailing discourse of urgency and delay calls out the federal government’s strategic negotiation of the politics of time. The anthropologist Stuart Kirsch introduces the concept of the “politics of time” to understand how corporations strategically delay recognition of the environmental impacts of industry (2014:145-148, 155). I am advancing the concept here to account for how the Trump administration has scaled up the widespread corporate strategy of delaying recognition and deferring critique through a new form of government incapacity building—literally and actually building incapacity into every level of government. The lapse in the federal response is a new strategy of the politics of time that forces us to think critically about novel responses to incapacitating delays during the pandemic. Kirsch also accounts for the new politics of time leveraged by the critics of corporations: the novel strategy of critical intervention early in the production cycle made possible by accelerating the local learning curve and sharing information. In the new (covid) politics of time, both early intervention and information sharing were stifled by the once most trusted authority of information, the Executive Office of the President.

The incapacitating effects of the new politics of time are exacerbated by attempts to control information and, in this case, produce a dazzling array of misinformation at the discursive level of national public health. During an interview on Democracy Now!, Dean Seneca, former senior health scientist in the Partnership Support Unit of the Office for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offers a diagnosis for why the Indigenous impact of COVID-19 has been so severe: “Well, as you can tell, you know, right from the very beginning, I mean, [Trump] didn’t make this pandemic a priority. He did a lot of mixed messaging in the very, very beginning when he started to talk about this. And you see that he’s trying to now — in his recent reports, trying to justify that, ‘No, we were on top of this right from the beginning.’ And that’s far from the case. You know, his mixed messaging is what was really critical. At times, he would say, ‘Well, hey, this virus is just going to go away. And we’ll wake up one day, and it won’t be here.’ You know, people listen to this information, and that is the wrong thing to send. He made a major mistake in eliminating his council on international health and global pandemics. That was huge right from the beginning. He should never have done that.” These early interventions of the current administration had broad incapacitating impacts.

Thomas De Pree's picture
May 8, 2020

In news reports from New York Times, to Los Angeles Times, to Navajo Times, as Indigenous nations of the United States respond to the impacts of the “Novel Coronavirus 2019” (COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2), they are calling out the re-emergence of an old, long-standing problem. During a recent interview, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said, “We are United States citizens but we’re not treated like that. You can hear the frustration, the tone of my voice. We, once again, have been forgotten by our own government” (NPR “Morning Edition,” April 24, 2020).

In this blind spot of the federal government, and despite the ignorance of the current administration, national news coverage has made the Navajo Nation (Dinétah) an “epicenter” in the popular imaginary of the so-called “Native impact” of COVID-19, which refers to the disproportionate rates of infection and compounding vulnerabilities in Indigenous nations across the United States. As the most populous “American Indian Tribe” in the US with approximately 325,000 people who identify as Diné, a broad range of news outlets found it fitting to compare the per-capita infection rates of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation with U.S. states, ranking it the third highest behind New Jersey and New York. In the absence of the federal government, state governors and departments have also begun to grapple with the numbers. New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) calculates the disparity of the “Native impact” in their public release of the state’s new COVID-19 data portal through a “Statewide Race/Ethnicity Breakdown” of the 3,513 recorded cases of infections in New Mexico: 53.41% “American Indian/Alaska Native”; 19.81% “Hispanic/Latino”; 15.81% “White” (accessed May 2, 2020).

From local to global news coverage of the coronavirus, one of the first questions asked about the impacts of the pandemic in particular places is: “What are the numbers?” The numbers prompt a pathological analysis, both biomedical and sociological. Although the biomedical pathology may be warranted, social pathology and discourse that pathologizes “culture” remain risky. This reportage on “the numbers” is part of the process Audra Simpson calls “the analytics of ‘minoritization,’ a statistical model for the apprehension of (now) racialized populations ‘within’ nation-states” (as cited in 2014:18; see 2011:211). It is part of the same state calculus in the etymology of the word “statistic” that was used historically to apprehend Diné people, capturing them categorically and spatially. In this collection of annotations, the numbers open up a different kind of analysis that leverages the concept of “minoritization” to turn a static category into an active and lively process of emergence and change, and account for the processes that attempt to make “minorities.”

In order to understand the impacts of and responses to the pandemic, the compound vulnerabilities, responsibility and resilience, we need to shift our gaze from a statistical and pathological view of the impact in the Navajo Nation to broader inter- and extra-governmental relations and infrastructures. Four relations of governance across geographic and institutional scales seem important to me: (1) U.S. federal government’s responsibility in recognizing and realizing the rights of Indigenous nations as stipulated in United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as state and federal treaties and contracts; (2) how neighboring state government of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah support or inhibit the public health governance capacity of the Navajo Nation; (3) the implications of decisions made by neighboring counties and municipalities; and (4) “nongovernment” political action, community and grassroots organizing.

By broadening the analysis across scales and developing deeper understanding at each level, this collection of annotations will demonstrate the responsibility of the U.S. federal government for how COVID-19 is unfolding in the Navajo Nation. In what follows, I will identify specific strategies of the “politics of time” (Kirsch 2014) and the “lateness” of late industrialism (Fortun 2014) that inhere in the settler colonial “logic of elimination” of Indigenous peoples (Wolfe 2006), as enacted by the U.S. federal government, and indexed by compounding environmental health vulnerabilities. By shifting the ethnographic gaze from the long history of pathological studies of Diné people, and Indigenous peoples across the U.S., to the external forces compounding on the Navajo Nation, we will be able to see the dominant formation of energy geopolitics that is almost a century old. Power lines are the obvious indicators, as Andrew Needham points out, which are a seemingly banal infrastructure that connects the Navajo Nation to Phoenix, Arizona and other cities in the U.S. Southwest as they contour the uneven gradients of energy and political power, and trace the dualistic process of “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey 2004). My central argument follows Dana Powell’s notion that, in the Navajo Nation, “energy is politics”—that is, “energy itself is at the heart of the Navajo Nation’s political existence,” and it is of broader cosmopolitical significance in Dinétah (Powell 2018:29; original emphasis).

What we will notice in the emergency public health response of the federal government, and the Trump administration in particular, is a double-vision for the Navajo Nation. As the pandemic rapidly unfolded, the environmental and public health of Diné people—what Powell refers to as “the true body politic”—was put at risk, rendered invisible, forgotten and ignored, or as Eryn Wise articulates, “treated as sacrifice zones for the pandemic,” echoing the discourse surrounding a legacy of “radioactive nation building” (Masco 2006). As Indigenous peoples and public health disappeared as a priority from the purview of the feds, the energy resources of the region simultaneously became a geopolitical target of intensive extraction. Reading between these two lines of forgetting Indigenous health and rendering energy resources legible for extraction offers unique insight into the governance style of the current administration; it also reveals the toxic infrastructures that shape pre-existing environmental health conditions (e.g., coal mines and power plants, abandoned uranium mines and mill tailings sites, and national “sacrifice zones” from Cold War nuclear weapons manufacturing and experimenting).

During the most urgent moments of the pandemic, the federal government was actively engaged in the promotion of resource extraction in the region, from uranium to oil and gas. The Navajo Nation is a place that temporarily disappeared from the purview of the federal government as a national health crisis, in a region that simultaneously became the focus of federal support for uranium mining. This cluster of annotations will highlight the double vision for the Navajo Nation that has emerged in the wake of the pandemic: The first step was the ignorance and refusal of the federal government to recognize and fulfill their responsibility to support Indigenous nations of the United States in a timely manner. In this case, timing was key.