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Surviving the Coronavirus Crisis: Diné Perspectives Part 3

‘Everything is sacred’

Courtesy photo
Shirley Montoya prepares sack lunches weekly for workers at the Shiprock Healing Circle Drop-In Center and the Four Corners Native American Ministry, which are closed, but still providing community outreach services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reverend Shirley Montoya has been devoting a lot of time to thinking about the onslaught of the coronavirus and has had some profound dreams in recent weeks, she said. “The overall feel of it is that is that we’ve gone so far away from Creator, the sacredness of life and creation itself,” said Montoya. “We need to go back to the prayerful ways that were given to us.”

She remembers a time when people treated each other with courtesy and were mindful of their words. “In this day and time we’re so disrespectful to one another,” said Montoya. “We no long even consider ourselves sacred beings. We don’t look at Mother Earth as sacred. We do everything that’s hurtful to her, the skies, and all the elements that were given to us for our survival.”

She believes all of that is mixed in with what is happening now and the resulting isolation and separation from loved ones. “It makes you look at where you’re living, your family,” she said. “It’s a time for reflection and to get back in tune with being human and what our purpose is.”

Montoya believes the Nation’s leaders need to do that as well. “There has to be some leadership that brings us back together, that brings us strength and hope as a people,” she said. Montoya says she believes in miracles and the power of unity in prayer, regardless of faith.

“If there was anything that we may have done to have something like this happen to the people on earth, to have humility and ask for forgiveness, I think would really be helpful,” she said. She wishes people could put aside their titles and their egos. “I believe in being true to ourselves, and owning what we may have done to contribute to something negative,” she said. If everyone could take responsibility for how we have not been protecting Mother Earth, maybe things could change, she said.

Even if we just stand by when the earth is being fracked and polluted, or tolerate people denying climate change and the animals and habitats that are disappearing, we’re complicit, she said. “They are all suffering,” she said.

“We’re all a part of that and we just don’t seem to care anymore.” Montoya says people have become self-centered in their greed and consumption. “The more we have, the more we want, when all we need are the basics,” she said.

By the same token, people feel a sense powerlessness that contributes their apathy, she said. “The Navajo people used to take the sacred ways very seriously, but today nobody really teaches that,” she said.

Even as a leader in the United Methodist Church, Montoya believes some of the rigid tenets or misinterpretations of Christianity have left many people confused and conflicted, she said. “In the Bible it says we’re created in God’s image,” she said. “Creator is everywhere. I truly believe Creator is within each of us.”

Montoya says she was raised in a family where Navajo traditional, Native American Church and Christianity were all practiced and she never felt she had to choose one over the other. “The Navajos believe the Holy One lives within, and the Christians call it Holy Spirit,” she said. “Creator is not just one faith — Creator is everything and everywhere.”

Each one of us are blessed with being born into a certain culture, she said. “Being born as a Navajo, an Indian woman, is the first gift that Creator gave me,” said Montoya. “I was blessed with grandparents who practiced the Navajo spiritual way and my parents taught me Native American Church way.”

Montoya says the main teaching she received was to respect who you are, respect what Creator gave you, and have a love for your culture, your traditions, your people, and your beliefs. She says there are a lot of things in the Bible that are negative and she had to come to grips with what she truly believed and wanted to teach.

Some Christians have become cult-like and can be very mean spirited, she said. “I will not go to a church that degrades the Navajo ways,” she said. “In the Navajo prayers, we say Creator loves us, we’re special, we’re sacred. Our words, our thoughts, our actions are sacred. Everything is sacred.” To go back to that means understanding the way other people pray is sacred to them too. “You respect it,” she said.

Montoya says to her K’é means respect, but it’s not always practiced that way. “We’re all related and if we believe in the clanship, kinship system, we need to practice it,” she said. Respect is essential to our health and our well-being, she said. “That entails everything, not only humans, but the animals, Mother Earth and the air, fire, and water,” she said. “K’e means having respect for all of these elements and for oneself.”

In the same way that we take care of ourselves and our relations, we should take care of the world that we live in, she said. “When we say the Creator lives within us, we’re the host to that living spirit,” said Montoya. “With that sacredness, we need to relearn how to communicate in a positive, encouraging hopeful manner.”

‘We need a miracle’

Courtesy photo
Black Mesa, Arizona, rancher Dorothy Yazzie tends to her sheep on a windy, sunny day.

“I’m just locked down,” said Black Mesa, Arizona, rancher and sheepherder Dorothy Yazzie. Yazzie said she started self-isolating, wearing protective gear, and avoiding trips long before the shelter in place order came down from the Navajo Nation government.

That is because Yazzie, who bridges the modern and traditional world, started following the data and the science even before the coronavirus crisis started breaking out in the United States.

“This virus is really getting our attention in ways that have never happened before,” said Yazzie. Yazzie said she’s had plenty of time to ponder the emergence of the frightening, invisible scourge. “In our traditional ways, Mother Earth is saying enough is enough,” said Yazzie. “We forgot about ourselves, we forgot about Mother Earth, we forgot about our prayers. We forgot about thanking our Creator for everything he’s done for us.”

She believes the virus might have been sent to remind us of all the things we were taught but are no longer practicing anymore. “We lost sight of our traditions, our language, our culture,” she said. Yazzie considers herself fortunate because her children, who live out of state, started mailing her boxes of food and supplies early on.

She wonders how people who don’t have that support are coping. While she has running water, she is concerned for her neighbors who do not. “Because the chapter was ordered to shut down, there has been no plan issued for community members,” she said.

Yazzie said there has been little communication or organized effort to let people know how to get the essential resources they need during this time. She said she complained to the president’s office but never heard back from anyone.

Yazzie says she starting to feel anxiety about the 57-hour weekend lockdown being enforced by the Navajo Nation government. “Even though I’m outside and tending to the sheep, I feel like I’m being told I can’t go anywhere, so I’m feeling claustrophobic,” she said.

Despite the strict curfews, Yazzie says many people in her region are not protecting themselves and are still gathering. She’s concerned they might be spreading the disease.

“This thing caught everybody by surprise,” said Yazzie. “Everyone was going about their normal life, and then all of a sudden we got hit. It spread so quickly that before anyone could do anything, it was out of control.”

Yazzie said what happened at Chilchinbito, where many who had attended a church gathering were infected, had a devastating effect on her community. “Every one of those people got exposed and they all went back to their communities,”’ she said.

She doesn’t think everyone was quarantined. “I think that’s where it got away and started spreading like wildfire,” she said. “It just got out of hand from there.”

She believes as long as she stays isolated, she’ll be OK. “Surviving out here and attending to your livelihood helps,” she said. “It keeps you separated from congregating with others where you’re more susceptible. Being out here in the rural area is a lot better than being in the city.”

Yazzie is also concerned about the studies that say even people who recover from coronavirus are having other long-term effects or damage, and some are getting re-infected. “It’s so scary,” she said. “They’re not free of it.”

She believes there hasn’t been enough testing and that the only way to get control of the situation is to get more people tested. “As a country, we were not ready,” she said. “Back in December our country was warned, but nobody heeded that warning, I guess.”

Because of that she feels Navajo will be deprived of the full medical response that will be needed and the Indian Health Service won’t be a priority. “We need a miracle,” she said. “Everyone should pray in their own way.”

Yazzie says she prays every day that a cure will be found or that a virus will just go away. “Maybe the rain or wind will take it,” she said.

She hopes soon there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. “It’s like a dream and you want to wake up and find out it’s not true and everything’s OK,” she said.

‘It’s not complicated’

Jinaabah Showa’s way of coping with the coronavirus crisis is to rely on the Navajo teachings she learned from her dad. “In trying times we are all sort of lost, but the way to find yourself is to go back to your roots and the tenets of our Navajo culture,” she said. “It’s not complicated.”

She believes the teachings are resilient have stood the test of time. “First, we have Hózhó — being in balance and being in beauty with all the things,” she said. “On the other hand, we have Ké, our relations.

Both of these ideas are the foundation of Navajo well-being. They have lasted through generations.” In that way, the teachings are always with us, she said. “All you have to do is think about them and how you can apply them,” said Showa. She sees that many people are confused right now and there is a lot of chaos in the world.

“When we have the pandemic disrupting our lives and communities, it is evident that things are not Hózhó,” she said. “We must turn to K’é, our relations, the people we love, and our communities to find healing and care. You just have to turn to other people to create more balance in your own life.”

Showa believes it is important to step up to our responsibilities and strengthen relationships with relatives at this time. “I thought to myself, I should just be reaching out to everyone and ask if I can do anything for them, whether sending money or a even a postcard,” she said.

It’s not like disasters haven’t happened before, said Showa. “The way that we remained such a strong Nation until now is that we held on to our families and Hózhó,” she said.

Showa said several members of her family have survived having the coronavirus, and she is grateful.

Originally from Window Rock, Showa lives in Albuquerque and normally commutes to the reservation for her work to help students planning for college, career guidance and testing prep. As an educator, she’s reaching out to her students now to make sure they are OK and let them know they are not alone, which she also considers part of K’é.

“I think that being half Navajo helps me to bridge the white man’s world and the Navajo world,” said Showa. “Culture is not just about blood. A lot of people are mixed race. As long as we have these teachings within us, that’s where culture lies.”

One thing Showa finds disturbing is the threat of fines for breaking the 57-hour weekend curfew on Navajo. “I think it’s overkill,” she said. “It’s like, how do you keep a people in poverty in place? — you fine them instead of building relationships. That just speaks to the corrosion of the Navajo government that they have to threaten people.”

It adds to the fear in an already stressful time and does not contribute to the spirit of K’é, she said. “These teachings are not new,” said Showa. “We are just remembering that they contain the wisdom we need to carry us through uncertain times.”


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