Apr 25th, 2020, 12:09 AM

Is Religion a Comfort or a Risk?

By Shandiin Vandervere
Navajo grandmother (shimasani) fetching water Image Credit: RuggieBearLA/Unsplash
Social celebrations may no longer offer the same relief they once did.

As you drive from the small town of Chinle to the even smaller town of Kayenta, Arizona, there lies an expanse of 70 miles of arid desert. A two-lane road winds through the red mesa that has sheltered Navajo, or Diné, families for generations. As you pass each trailer home, a second building is nestled right beside it. A hogan, the traditional dwelling for the Navajo people, is made as an eight-sided home with every characteristic serving a purpose. The door is always made to face the east, so as to ensure the family inside wakes up with the sun each day. The pine and cedar logs that make up the home are sanded down, and the left over bark is used to insulate any gaps.

These homes often represent the merging of traditional values with modern ingenuity, as some of the homes you pass now use solar panels to power their electricity. But even today, when entering a hogan, there is an immediate feeling of calm. Besides the main entrance and an opening at the top to allow smoke to pass, there are no other windows or walls separating the home. You feel as if you are entering the earth itself, a cool shelter from the outside world. This feeling has been kept through the test of time. Hogans are now mostly used for traditional ceremonies performed by sacred medicine men of the tribe.

Abandoned housing in Kayenta, Arizona Image Credit: escapo/Creative Commons

Driving along, you may notice how spread out each home is. No homes are right next to each other. Each house is separated by at least a mile of tumbleweeds and horse-corrals. From a visitor’s perspective it may seem like the Navajo Nation were disconnected and separated. But a long history of traditional attachments to the land itself reveals just the opposite. Every family has a land-trust that is handed down through their descendants. This includes children, children’s spouses, their children’s spouses’ families. The number of people who live together on a single property only multiplies. Navajo community strengthens with each generation as a whole new family is enveloped.

This two hour drive is one that countless families on the Navajo Reservation make every third day, from their homes in another town to a community center that provides water for $95 a week. These families fill their water tanks on backs of pick-up trucks to share with their family members. The spread of the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the infrastructure disparities on the Navajo Nation. Simple health directives like “wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds” are difficult for Diné families to follow, because one-third of the population here doesn’t have plumbing to provide running water. Water has long been held sacred here, viewed as the ultimate life source.

San Juan Count Health Initiative setting up testing sites around Navajo Nation Image Credit: blacksheep/Unsplash

“Water is life. Tó éí ííńá.”

A medicine man on the Navajo Nation explains how the Diné see COVID-19. The deadly and invisible ghost sickness known as ha’t’ííshíí na’ałniihi, was first created from the ashes of the mammals and reptiles that burned in the Australian fires in 2019. These ashes rose into the air and weakened the ozone enough for celestial rays to shoot into the ocean, causing the earth to open up and release an energy that infected fish and other marine life before reaching the surface. As humans caught and ate the infected marine life, this new virus began to infect hundreds of other people.

While this story differs from the WHO, it seems that as scientists, presidents, and other experts around the world lack answers, more people clutch even tighter to their religions and rituals. In a blatant disregard of the WHO’s warning to restrict all social gatherings to less than 10 people, a church gathering in Chiłchinbii’tó was held. The first confirmed case was then recorded, a 46-year-old man who had been present at that sermon. The sermon is now linked to the first dozen cases of coronavirus and at least two deaths on the Navajo reservation.

Since the Navajo Nation is a tribal sovereign nation, split between four different states (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado), comprehensive statistics are hard to collect. With every family so spread out over the reservation's 27,000 miles, access to clean water and health care facilities are harder to reach. Not everyone on the reservation has a phone or even internet access so virtual communities of aide and solace are difficult to support.

A Diné family fills their supply of clean drinking water. Image Credit: digdeep/Creative Commons

On the Navajo Nation, where Christianity has had strong holds since the days of assimilation, churches have been closed and large powwow celebrations sacred to Native American culture have been indefinitely postponed. Despite the risks of spreading the coronavirus, religion plays as important a role as ever, especially in communities of color. Amid the anxiety created by the pandemic, Navajo tribe members are finding new solutions. In addition to simply staying home, elders have begun spreading "blessings” prayers and ways to cleanse your environment with sage, traditionally. As the entire world struggles to find solace in religion or modern science, it seems the best solution is to combine both.

While religion has the powerful potential to help some communities, it also reveals blatant institutional inequalities. The apathetic response to the Navajo Nation and other communities of people of color seem to be a model for the rest of the world, as the pandemic disproportionally affects these areas where lack of federal aid and infrastructure has left them unable to defend against the virus. Religion is often the common denominator, whether it be Buddhism, traditional cultures like that of the Diné people, or Christianity. Religion offers a feeling of hope and a future of the calm normalcy we all wish for. But as this global crisis continues, local communities should never be forgotten.