- By Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi
Editor's Note: This article was orginally published by Spotlight New Mexico. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
On the Navajo Nation, the coronavirus is leaving children motherless, families lost and traditions in peril. But Diné women fight on.
SHIPROCK, N.M. — Sitting in the passenger seat of her husband’s pickup truck just before dusk, Eugenia Charles-Newton watched a young Navajo girl, her niece, during a traditional kinaaldá ceremony in Shiprock.
The coming-of-age ceremony was unlike any other kinaaldá she’d ever seen. Scores of family members were missing and there was only a small cake, just enough to feed the immediate family. That morning, the girl’s female relatives hadn’t gathered to sing and tell stories as they mixed the cake batter. When the girl ran toward the east before the sun rose, she didn’t have throngs of relatives running behind her to fill the dawn air with happy screams and shouts, celebrating her transition into womanhood. Only the young woman’s brothers ran after her.
It’s hard “for a girl to have a ceremony like that and not have all the family there,” Charles-Newton said. She tried to comfort her niece, a relation by clan. “Your mom could have just said, ‘No, we’re not going to have it,’” she pointed out. “But instead, she made it happen.”
Women have long been front and center when it comes to making things happen on the Navajo Nation. But never has that role been so apparent — or so perilous — as during the pandemic. Ever since the coronavirus arrived on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, women in this matriarchal society have been putting themselves at risk, taking on ever more responsibilities, culturally and in everyday life.
“The sacred side of women has changed with COVID,” said Charles-Newton, 43, one of three female delegates on the Navajo Nation Council. Girls used to learn traditions through celebrations, face-to-face talks with elders and communal gatherings. But the pandemic has squelched those opportunities. “It’s taking away a part of the culture.”
By every measure — from economics and education to health — COVID-19 disproportionately harms women and girls “simply by virtue of their sex,” the United Nations has concluded. Women are more exposed to the virus because they’re more likely to be frontline workers, such as nurses and health care staff. They hold more than 77 percent of jobs in U.S. hospitals, health care facilities and nursing homes, U.S. labor statistics show. They hold essential jobs, albeit low-paying ones, in groceries and retail stores.
On the Navajo Nation, women are even more vulnerable to the virus, as a result of poor health care, poverty, trauma and high rates of illnesses like diabetes.
Navajo women not only hold high-exposure jobs but also are keepers of the cultural flame — and caretakers of the many people around them who’ve tested positive for the virus. When they become sick or die, the whole culture suffers.
“Women are the home — they’re matriarchs, they’re mothers,” said Navajo archaeologist Rena Martin, 67. “When people say, ‘I’m going home,’ it’s to where Mom is. If you lose a matriarch, you have no home to go to.”
The founder of Dinétahdóó Cultural Resources Management, a Navajo company dedicated to preserving tribal history, culture and lands, Martin has seen families living in some of the most remote landscapes in the Southwest. She particularly worries about the women elders — crucial to the culture — who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19.
The virus is typically more lethal for Navajo men — but that changes in the golden years, statistics show. After 70, the coronavirus death rate for Navajo women begins to accelerate. By age 80, Diné women suffer a substantially higher death rate than men.
Martin knows firsthand what the loss of an elder can do. Her maternal grandmother, matriarch to the core, boiled herbs, made medicinal drinks and carried them to families stricken with whooping cough, delivering them near and far on horseback. She succumbed to the disease when Martin’s mother was 4.
The loss left the next two generations without knowledge of their family history and teachings, Martin said. It was the need to reclaim those losses that prompted her to become an archaeologist.
“There was a loss of centeredness in the family. There was a loss of oral history.” The pandemic, she said, could leave generations of women feeling similarly at sea.
Some might feel like they’re drowning. Diné women today are juggling employment while also cooking, cleaning, babysitting, shopping, parenting, teaching, caring for relatives and tending to the elderly.
Since March, when the reservation became one of the country’s worst hot spots, women have commonly been seen making supply runs at local stores, buying not just for the immediate family but for extended family members, to meet kinship obligations.
They are carrying caskets at burial sites, typically a man’s job. They are revising the “baby’s first laugh” celebrations, dropping off salt and goodies to family and friends instead of hosting a gathering at home.
Grandmothers are helping children attend virtual classes, though most have no experience with computers. Some have set up makeshift desks in crowded houses without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing — a problem for roughly a third of households. Others sit with their grandchildren outside of schools and chapter houses so the kids will have internet access and can complete their homework.
Zoom won’t suffice
The Navajo are a matrilineal society: When they introduce themselves, they do so by clan, leading with their mother’s clan, which children take as their own. Naabeehó sáanii (Navajo women) are the center of the family, the keepers of wisdom and conservators of ancestral teachings. Navajo emergence stories tell of how women learned to be matriarchs from Changing Woman, a single mother of twin sons who became Diné heroes.
By tradition, the teachings are passed down in person, in the Navajo language. Zoom meetings are hardly a suitable replacement.
In the four-day kinaaldá, for example, the mother, grandmother and other female relatives have hands-on roles in the ceremony, held when a girl reaches puberty. The women help the girl wash and they tie and wrap her hair. They knead her limbs to symbolically “mold” her into a strong woman. They make the alkaan (Navajo cake) and bury it in the ground to cook.
It is a level of communion that’s nearly impossible during recurring waves of contagion and the accompanying public health restrictions. The Navajo Nation, a vast landscape (pop. 172,875) that spans New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in America. As of Nov. 10, at least 12,641 cases have been confirmed there; 594 people have died.
The tribal government has tried to curb transmission by issuing strict curfews, stay-at-home orders, business and travel restrictions, and limits on gatherings. Officials have also canceled events like the Miss Navajo Nation pageant, in which contestants must butcher a sheep and cook over an open fire.
Shaandiin Parrish, the current Miss Navajo Nation, is one of the scores of women who’ve seen their roles morph in ways they never imagined. Parrish, 26, was living alone in Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo Nation’s capital, when the virus struck. She wanted to rush home to the Kayenta area to be with her family, but the reservation was on lockdown.
So she used her time to spread health safety messages on her social media platform. When travel was allowed, she drove hundreds of miles to dispense food, water and supplies to families, along with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. Dressed in full traditional attire — velvet shirt and skirt, moccasins, jewelry, a sash, crown, plus a mask and gloves — she continues to give out care packages in remote Navajo communities, from Oljato
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