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A history of epidemics: Diné avoid epidemics, but fall victim to flu

Part 2

After Hwééldi, the Navajos returned to the safety of the Four Sacred Mountains. They brought back four years worth of beatings, death, rapes, and kidnappings.

For the Navajos who never let the evil spirit of war leave them, according to T’iis Yazhi, who was interviewed in 1973 by David Brugge, the abuses their families and clan relatives endured fell on the shoulders of the leaders who chose to surrender, rather than fight to the death.

They also brought back newly learned ceremonies they learned from the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches, and their white captors, according to Charlotte J. Frisbie’s Temporal Change in Navajo Religion: 1868-1990 paper.

The Diné binahagha’ would no longer be the same, despite the practice of positive energy continuing to be at the center of all the ceremonies that were practiced prior to Hwééldi.

Frisbie wrote, no longer were just Navajo ceremonies like Hochxǫ́’íjí, Hózhǫ́ǫ́jí, ‘Anaa’jí, ‘Iináájí, Na’at’oliijí, Béeshjí, Tł’éé’jí, and Diné biníłch’ijí Dziłlátahjí being practiced. Navajo ceremonies were being combined with Apache ceremonies like Chíshíjí and Ats’ǫ́ǫ́sjí.

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The Náhwiiłbįįhí Yoodlání also began taking shape. The name would eventually be changed to Diné Oodlání, or Navajo Christian.

In 1872, the CDC stated, what would become known as the Great Epizootic infected and killed horses in the U.S. and Canada. The infected horses developed hacking coughs and fatigue caused by an equine influenza.

The horse sickness eventually reached the Southwest where the U.S. Cavalry and the Chiricahua Apaches fought some of their battles on foot because their horses died or became incapacitated from the sickness.

That same year, the CDC stated, as the equine pandemic raged throughout the country, the equine influenza jumped into the avian population, creating an avian influenza outbreak that exploded in chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys.

The epizootic avian event swept across the country with fatal results. Eventually the avian influenza transitioned into people, which started the 1873-74 human influenza outbreaks that became known as the “epizooty,” or “zooty,” the CDC stated.

The Navajos continued to avoid a major influenza outbreak in the 1800s, but that was about to change.

According to NASA, two solar eclipses occurred on July 29, 1878, and Jan. 1, 1889. Even after the eclipses, T’iis Yazhi said, most Navajos continued practicing the importance of channeling their inner energies towards positivity, the scars of Hwéeldi, and the heavy influence of the Treaty of 1868, were now more noticeable.

Some Navajos began questioning the ceremonies their grandparents and great grandparents lived by, Yazhi added.

The 1868 Navajo treaty stated Navajo children would be required to attend schools, which were maintained by followers of the Christian faith, who prevented them from learning Navajo traditional ways.

The treaty also created boundaries that Navajo were required to recognize, which cut off traditional grounds where they historically gathered their herbs needed for healing and ceremonial purposes.

From 1890 to 1915, the CDC stated, smallpox ravaged the Navajo people. Navajo ceremonies were no match for it.

The U.S. Department of the Interior often criticized the Navajos and pressured them to discontinue their traditional practices. So much so, the government published a book called, “Indian Babies, How To Keep Them Well.” In it they wrote that the traditional Navajo cradle was not good because it restricted a baby’s movements, implying it was inhumane and cruel.

Another omen appeared to the Navajos on June 8, 1918: another solar eclipse. Another red sky also appeared.

The Navajos felt Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehí was continuing to punish them. The summer that year was noticeably cooler and people were still dealing with the smallpox epidemic.

As the seasons began changing from summer to fall, the first reports, according to “The ‘Flu’ of the Navajos,” by Albert B. Reagan, Navajo deaths caused by the Spanish Flu were reported in the Kayenta and Tuba City areas on Oct. 3, 1918.

The CDC stated the effects of avian-caused influenza were vicious. If Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehí was punishing the Navajos, this was proof.

The Marsh Pass Boarding School, the school Reagan was to take charge of, was quickly turned into a makeshift hospital and morgue, as Navajo students and their families, sick or dying with the flu, were taken to the school.

According to the University of New Mexico Digital Repository, the Navajo people living in Window Rock, Fort Defiance, Crystal, and on the east side of the Chuska Mountains were not spared from the flu.

Many families turned to traditional Navajo ceremonies that usually brought them together in celebratory fashion. This time, the influenza quickly infected whole families, including the hataałiis who participated in the ceremonies. Whole churches, doctors, and hospitals were also infected.

The city of Gallup, according to the UNM digital repository, reported its first case of the influenza pandemic on Sept. 28, 1918. By Oct. 12, people had died from it and about 300 people overwhelmed the small community hospital, St. Mary’s.

All public gatherings were prohibited. Schools and churches, restaurants, and movie theaters were ordered closed by the city as the flu exploded within the city limits.

Roadblocks to prevent people from leaving or entering the city were also set up by the police.

The public was urged to avoid crowds, indoors and outdoors, as well as to take in fresh air from outside, stated the UNM digital repository. Physicians suggested people who were not sickened by the flu gargle antiseptics, and take laxatives and liver stimulants.

By Oct. 19, 90 people had succumbed to the deadly virus, including a seven-year-old Navajo boy who died at the hospital, according to the UNM digital repository. By Oct. 26, 128 citizens of Gallup, including another Navajo, were dead from the virus.

In Navajo country, Indian agents and Indian traders reported whole families had died from the disease. They also reported hogans across the reservation were filled with “dead bodies.”

As the season turned into winter, temperatures dropped to arctic conditions as low as -80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Family members who had survived the death grip of the virus fled their homes, according to Reagan, and froze to death because their traditional beliefs, as well as the sheer fear of contracting what killed their families.

Not all was bleak though, as many families and hataałiis turned to the herbs that had kept them healthy, Frisbie wrote.

They performed sweat lodge ceremonies and cleansed themselves of evil thoughts and prayed for positive energy. They rode their horses from hogan to hogan and healed many families using Protection Way, Evil Way, Mountain Way, and Blessing Way ceremonies.

Since then several influenzas in 1933, 1957, 1968 and 2009, as well as the 1993 Hantavirus, according to the CDC, were been overcome by the Navajo people.

How the Navajos of the early- to mid-1800s dealt with the diseases of that era is not vastly different from how modern Navajo are dealing with the 2019 coronavirus pandemic. Families have turned to traditional ceremonies and traditional herbs because there is no cure for the virus.

The hataałii adéíst’į́į́’ ííł’ínígíí said a number of ceremonies are needed to be performed in order for balance to be restored. If not, the virus will not stop spreading, he said.

NASA scientists say a large piece that broke off of the 1844 comet will be making its way across the skies of the Navajo Nation, which can now be seen in the northern skies. NASA has named it Comet ATLAS.

Two falling star events will also take place this month and in May. Both celestial events are considered omens to the Navajo people.

About The Author

Donovan Quintero

"Dii, Diné bi Naaltsoos wolyéhíígíí, ninaaltsoos át'é. Nihi cheii dóó nihi másání ádaaní: Nihi Diné Bizaad bił ninhi't'eelyá áádóó t'áá háadida nihizaad nihił ch'aawóle'lágo. Nihi bee haz'áanii at'é, nihisin at'é, nihi hózhǫ́ǫ́jí at'é, nihi 'ach'ą́ą́h naagééh at'é. Dilkǫǫho saad bee yájíłti', k'ídahoneezláo saad bee yájíłti', ą́ą́ chánahgo saad bee yájíłti', diits'a'go saad bee yájíłti', nabik'íyájíłti' baa yájíłti', bich'į' yájíłti', hach'į' yándaałti', diné k'ehgo bik'izhdiitįįh. This is the belief I do my best to follow when I am writing Diné-related stories and photographing our events, games and news. Ahxéhee', shik'éí dóó shidine'é." - Donovan Quintero is an award-winning Diné journalist, who is based in Window Rock, Arizona. He can be contacted at


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