Earth Day is an annual celebration to give thanks for the wonder and gifts of the natural world. This year, we are doing so at a distance of six feet or greater, but for many of us, with undiminished passion and commitment to preserving and protecting our environment. In the midst of the coronavirus global pandemic, it is hard not to feel like the world is out of balance and Mother Nature and Father Sky are telling us that the way we have been living is not sustainable or healthy.
My tribe, the Navajo Nation, has faced a tough fight against the virus. While we are in a rural area of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, the virus has found us and taken a serious toll. At the end of last week, the Navajo Nation had a total of 1,042 cases and 41 confirmed deaths. It became apparent about a month ago that there was a problem, when in one week the reported cases increased from 29 to 115 for an on-reservation population of approximately 172,000.
The Navajo Nation’s rate of infection appears to be much higher than the surrounding, non-native population. New Mexico Pueblos have also suffered high rates of infection despite their small populations. Regrettably, this disproportionate impact is not surprising given the tough living conditions on Indian reservations, where modern day basics such as adequate housing, running water, electricity, and broadband are lacking, as are adequately-staffed and fully-equipped healthcare facilities. These substandard conditions allow the coronavirus to spread and thrive.
Native Americans are strong, resilient people who have survived worse than the coronavirus. But we also never forget the dark chapters of our past. We exist in a constant, dual state of grieving while thriving, remembering our ancestors who suffered so much for us to be here today.
As a result of our millennium-long journey in America, we bring perspective and knowledge that could give guidance to America in this time of turmoil. Our Navajo culture believes that sickness strikes when the delicate, harmonious nature of the world is out of balance.
I remember in the 1990s when the deadly hanta virus needlessly took the lives of Navajos, and western doctors could not determine the source of the disease. It was the Navajo medicine men who identified the cause based on their keen observations about the higher pinon crop that season, which attracted increased numbers of mice that carried the disease.
Our traditional knowledge about how humans can live in harmony with the universe is valuable and should be a part of America’s solution for how to live in a post-pandemic world. It’s also misleading to generalize that Native Americans are one-dimensional environmentalists. Navajos are very entrepreneurial and respect business savvy and the art of striking a good deal. The key in life is finding the right balance between many different human goals - a balance that is sustainable and visionary, reaping benefits today as well as for future generations. It is this balanced, nuanced approach that fosters sustainability and durability that is lacking in today’s modern world.
A major impediment to achieving the right balance is America’s uncertainty as a young country, where we are not sure who we want to be, giving rise to internal conflict between our liberal and conservative selves. Meanwhile, Indian tribes are patiently watching America weather our identity crisis while trying to stay out of the drama. Unfortunately, America’s identity crisis is all consuming, and it is not clear that we will pause long enough to recognize that the devastation and suffering caused by this pandemic is a wakeup call.
We already are seeing protestors defy quarantine orders based on political ideology, ignoring science and placing personal, individual desires over the collective good. Fixated on authority instead of public safety, local governments have debated with tribal governments whether the tribal stay-at-home orders apply to non-natives on the reservation, defeating the whole purpose of social distancing.
The federal government continues apace during the pandemic with official actions that ignore tribal concerns based on cultural practices and environmental protection, such as land management planning for oil and gas drilling in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and the implementation of a new land management regime on the sacred lands of the former Bear Ears National Monument. These adverse federal government activities afflict Indian tribes at the same time that they must devote precious, limited resources to combating the pandemic and protecting their communities.
The current approach of ignoring signs that the world is not well, listening to only certain voices of influence, and denigrating different cultures, will lead humanity to more imbalance, sickness, and disenfranchisement.
In the spirit of Earth Day, America should welcome the First Americans to help find the country’s path to healing and empowerment. The first lesson would be that we must listen to what Mother Earth and Father Sky are telling us, as we peer out from over our masked faces, feeling anxious, uncertain, and no longer in the driver’s seat.
Hilary C. Tompkins is board member of Conservation Lands Foundation and previously served as the first Native American Solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2009 to 2017. Her views in this op-ed are her own and are not expressed in an official capacity.