Native Americans are losing their elders to Covid-19. As death tolls continue to climb, tribes are struggling to protect some of their last remaining knowledge and language keepers.
“Every time one of those elders leaves this world, it’s like a whole library, a whole beautiful chapter of our history, of our ceremonies — all that knowledge, gone,” Clayson Benally, a member of Navajo Nation, said. “It’s not written, it’s not dictated, you’re not going to find it on the internet.”
Self-isolating in their Flagstaff, Arizona, homes, Clayson and his sister Jeneda Benally have been working to pass on the knowledge of their elder father, Jones Benally, during the pandemic.
“I take it as the greatest responsibility I’ve ever had in my life to make sure that our knowledge keepers, to make sure that my parents, come out on the other side of this pandemic,” Jeneda said.
Native Americans are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus because they suffer from disproportionate rates of asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.
The Navajo Nation is the largest tribe in the US, with over 300,000 members, and had reported 22,776 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 783 deaths as of Thursday. The tribe has been on lockdown since November 16 and will continue to stay at home until January 10, according to a recent announcement from the Navajo Department of Health. The new measures also include 57-hour weekend lockdowns.
“Wherever we go, we’re cautioned,” Jones said.
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Keeping culture alive
A traditional medicine man and world-renowned hoop dancer, Jones is recognized by the state of Arizona as an Arizona Indian Living Treasure. His family does not know his exact age, but they estimate he is in his 90s based on his recollection of events.
Jeneda and Clayson, along with their brother Klee, were taught Dine,’ the traditional Navajo language, as well as culture and sciences by their father. Now, with ample time at home, Jones is working with his children to pass this knowledge on to the grandchildren. One of their frequent activities is going on nature walks to learn about medicinal plants.
“I try to make it a multi-sensory experience,” Jeneda, who has two daughters, said. “You know, we walk into the forest and I’m like, what do you see that you can eat? What do you see here that’s medicine?”
Due to the pandemic, Jeneda, a traditional medicine practitioner, has had to stop seeing patients. It’s not the only profession she’s hit pause on — she and Clayson haven’t performed as their band, Sihasin, in months.
But, the award-winning punk-rock duo has taken advantage of their online platform to share cultural knowledge with members of the Navajo community and beyond. They host Facebook Live concerts, post informational videos on YouTube and participate in online events for Native American causes.
“We want to utilize that as a platform to catch youth’s attention, to remind them, hey, culture is cool,” Jeneda said.
However, the Benally siblings are mindful about what information they publicize on the internet.
“There is a history of exploitation and people taking advantage of sacred and ceremonial knowledge,” Clayson said. “How much can we share? You know, this is sacred knowledge.”
Working to protect the elders
Some 10% of Navajos on the reservation reportedly do not have electricity and nearly 40% live without running water. These conditions have made living through a pandemic more challenging, especially for the elders, according to Jeneda, whose family lives off-reservation in a border town.
“It’s devastating to see our people being impacted not only by this pandemic, but by the lack of infrastructure, which allows for us to even have a chance to support ourselves,” she said. “I mean, how can you wash your hands for 20 seconds under running water if you don’t have that?”
Additionally, without resources like grocery stores nearby on the reservation, residents rely on trips to border towns for supplies, risking the potential of bringing the virus home with them.
In order to help keep vulnerable elders home, Clayson has been volunteering with local organizations such as K’e Relief Project to bring supplies like water, firewood, and food to families in need on the reservation.
“There’s been such an amazing humanitarian effort,” Clayson said.
The Benallys believe the coronavirus has helped shine a light on the injustices Native Americans face every day. Many of the infrastructure problems hindering Native Americans today go back to how reservations were established by the Department of War, they said.
“If you think of what a prison looks like, the concept of a reservation is: here’s wasteland that we can move population onto and control them as a resource,” Clayson said.
As they continue to do what they can to protect their elders and community members, the Benallys are keeping positive mindsets.
“It’s hard not to be frustrated, but it is so important to carry that seed of hope within us,” Jeneda said. “This heartbeat right here is one of resilience.”