Navajo Nation Loses Elders And Tradition To COVID-19 | KUNC

Navajo Nation Loses Elders And Tradition To COVID-19

Originally published on May 31, 2020 9:28 am

In Navajo culture to speak of death is taboo. But since the tribe's coronavirus infection rate has become the highest in the country, they can't help but talk about it.

"It's killing every day," says medicine man Ty Davis, who knows at least five traditional practitioners who have died from COVID-19.

"It put me into shock," he says. "What do we do now? How do we retrieve that knowledge that these elders once knew now that they have died with those ceremonies? How do we get those back?"

Each medicine person specializes in different ceremonies. So when someone dies they take that knowledge with them. Over the last several decades the tribe has gone from a thousand Diné or Navajo medicine people to just 300. The coronavirus threatens the few who remain.

Medicine man Avery Denny is attempting to change that trajectory by taking on apprentices where he teaches at Diné College on the Navajo Nation.

"I have great great concerns," Denny says.

Denny says he's up against centuries of colonialism when it comes to preserving Navajo culture and tradition. The federal government forced tribes to relocate, sent Native children to boarding schools where they were beaten for speaking their language for singing their songs.

"Young people are acculturated, assimilated, dominated. They're losing their language and their culture," Denny says.

Denny says white missionaries are also to blame for replacing Navajo religion.

"Christianity is the belief that our people turned to even our leadership so there's no guidance," Denny says. "There's no leader that says, 'OK we'll turn to Navajo values and Navajo Diné medicine.'"

For instance, the Navajo president begins each meeting with a Christian prayer even though he also addresses his community in Navajo.

The loss of traditional practitioners is not just a cultural loss but also a personal one for people such as Jeneda Benally, whose aunt recently died from COVID-19.

"I am really emotional about this because it's so painful to lose so many loved ones," she says.

Benally is a traditional practitioner who works alongside her father who was the first medicine man to practice in a Western hospital.

"I felt very early on during this pandemic that I needed to protect my father so that way he can continue to help people in order to protect our future generations," Benally says.

One way she is doing that is working with her brother Clayson to produce youtube videos to share Navajo cultural practices like how to dry farm and how to shear sheep.

The Benallys hope their videos will encourage tribal members to reconnect with their culture, especially now while tribal members are spending a lot of time at home during during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We've got this technology," Jeneda Benally says. "How are we going to find hope in this technology? How are we going to find the continuation of our culture where we can connect our elders to our youth?"

The dilemma is figuring out what parts of Navajo culture they can share publicly and what parts are too sacred and can only be passed down from one Navajo to another.

Copyright 2020 KJZZ. To see more, visit KJZZ.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

More than 160 people in the Navajo Nation have died from COVID-19, many of them older tribal members. Their death marks a loss of language, stories, ceremonies and cultural wisdom, as Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: In Navajo culture, to speak of death is taboo. But since the tribe's coronavirus infection rate has become the highest in the country, they can't help but talk about it.

TY DAVIS: You know, it's killing every day.

MORALES: Ty Davis is a hataalii - or Navajo medicine man - who knows at least five traditional practitioners who have died from the disease.

DAVIS: It put me into shock. What do we do now? How do we retrieve that knowledge that these elders once knew? Now that they have died with those ceremonies, how do we get those back?

MORALES: Each medicine person specializes in different ceremonies. So when someone dies, they take that knowledge with them. Over the last several decades, the tribe has gone from 1,000 Dine - or Navajo medicine people - to just 300. The coronavirus threatens the few who remain. Medicine man Avery Denny is attempting to change that trajectory by taking on apprentices where he teaches at Dine College on the Navajo Nation. For this year's graduates, he sang a journey song on YouTube.

AVERY DENNY: (Singing in Non-English Language).

MORALES: But Denny says the process of apprenticing new practitioners takes time - much more than a four-year degree will allow.

DENNY: I have great, great concern.

MORALES: Denny says he's up against centuries of colonialism. The federal government forced tribes to relocate, sent Native children to boarding schools where they were beaten for speaking their language, for singing their songs.

DAVIS: Young people are acculturated, assimilated, dominated. They're losing their language and their culture.

MORALES: The loss of traditional practitioners is not just a cultural loss but also a personal one for people like Jeneda Benally. She's a medicine woman whose aunt recently died from COVID-19.

JENEDA BENALLY: I am really emotional about this because it's so painful to lose so many loved ones.

MORALES: Benally works alongside her father, who was the first medicine man to practice in a Western hospital.

J BENALLY: I felt, very early on during this pandemic, that I needed to protect my father, so that way, he can continue to help people in order to protect our future generations.

MORALES: One way Benally is doing that is working with her brother Clayson to produce YouTube videos to share Navajo cultural practices, like how to dry farm.

CLAYSON BENALLY: The idea of plowing and ripping up the soil and destroying the topsoil is something that we see as erosion. It's part of that erosion of our culture, the erosion of our lifestyle.

MORALES: The Benallys hope these videos will stop or at least slow that erosion, especially now while tribal members are spending a lot of time at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

J BENALLY: We've got this technology. How are we going to find hope in this technology? How are we going to find the continuation of our culture, where we can connect our elders to our youth?

MORALES: The dilemma is figuring out what parts of Navajo culture they can share publicly and what parts are too sacred and can only be passed down from one Navajo to another. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.