Traveling the Navajo Nation after the devastation of COVID-19

Sculpture at the Monument Valley entrance and Great Seal of the Navajo Nation. Monument Valley is located on Navajo or Diné land in Southern Utah. (Derek VanBuskirk)

The trip, like many good things in life, began as a bumpy ride.

Strapped into a well-traveled Ford F-150, a fellow BYU journalism student and I found ourselves traversing the rough dirt roads of the Navajo Nation. Sitting alongside Shawn Begay, public health director for the Utah Navajo Health System, we asked questions about the history of the Navajo, or the Diné as they are called in the Navajo language, and about the realities of life on the largest reservation in the country.

He explained the history of his people, how The Long Walk and disease crippled them but did not keep them down. He talked about how many people on the reservation do not have running water, at one point slowing his truck down to show us the large water jugs many people have just outside their homes and must regularly travel long distances to refill. Outside the truck, we were surrounded by an endless sea of red dirt, shrubbery and unbelievably beautiful rock formations. Small homes with often three or four cars dotted the landscape every few miles or so. The land is the centerpiece of the scene here, and the homes are merely dwelling amid its bounty.

A home on Diné land in Monument Valley. The Navajo Reservation near Blanding, Utah is the largest Indian Reservation in the United States. (Derek VanBuskirk)

After traveling roughly 300 miles southeast of Provo, through the cities of Moab and Blanding in early April, a group of four BYU journalism students and one longsuffering professor found themselves crossing the San Juan River at the Jason R. Workman Memorial Bridge one afternoon. Aside from a small sign reminding drivers to buckle up, there was little fanfare announcing our arrival to the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian Reservation in the United States. “Once we cross the river, we’re there,” Begay said as we prepared to enter Diné land. “With the Navajo Treaty of 1868, which was an agreement between the Navajo tribe and the US government, the US government  set up the boundaries of the Navajo Nation that are still in place today. Our people used to go as far north as the Salt Lake Valley, all the way to Pueblo Colorado, as far south as Albuquerque and a good way into Arizona. “Ancestrally that was our land, and then the US government set aside a small portion of that land for us,” Begay explained. It is this small allotment of their ancestral land we enter that afternoon.

A small sign reminding driver to “Buckle up” marks the entrance of the Navajo Reservation in Blanding, Utah. The Reservation spans nearly 25,000 miles. (Marissa Lundeen)
Drivers must cross the San Juan River to enter the Navajo Reservation. The bridge is named after Jason Ray Workman, a Navy SEAL killed in the line of duty. (Marissa Lundeen)

Spanning roughly 25,000 square miles, the Navajo Reservation or Diné Bikéyah (Navajo for the people’s sacred lands) occupies parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. According to the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, the Diné’s population is over 250,000 people, with most registered members living within the nation’s borders. As our group, with the support of our generous guide Shawn, spent two days visiting various communities within the reservation and speaking with community members, we learned of the Diné’s unique situation. Caught between the world of their ancestors and the world of modernity, the Diné are learning how to exist in these two worlds as they work to preserve their culture while also fighting for better infrastructure, healthcare, and educational and vocational opportunities for their people.

Begay, a graduate of both BYU and the University of Utah, is one of many of the Diné who, after leaving the reservation for a time, has returned to the land of his ancestors determined to uplift his community. Shawn introduced us to Samantha Holiday, director of the Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgai (Monument Valley) Community Center. Born and raised in Monument Valley, a community of roughly 1,000 people on the reservation, Holiday is well aware of the needs of her local community. A graduate of both Utah State University and Southern Utah University, Holiday decided to return to the reservation after years away so that she could use the skills she had acquired to uplift her community.

“I’ve known I wanted to come back here for a long time,” Holiday said. “I wanted to come back and build my home here and help the people in some capacity.”

As the Diné navigate the process of existing in two worlds, the Monument Valley Community Center acts as a sort of refuge for the people and a bastion of hope by proving this multi-world dwelling can be done. Holiday took us through the various rooms in the community center, showing us the library where kids come to read after school and the computer room where those who don’t have Wi-Fi in their homes (which are many) can access the internet and receive job training and instruction on how to set up an email account.

She walked us through the room where elders from the community teach others how to do certain Diné traditions such as rug weaving, beading and sewing traditional outfits. Other rooms are used for Navajo lessons and for local vendors to sell jewelry and other products. Just outside of the center, Holiday showed us a hoop house and explained the community center’s goal to equip every family with one of these greenhouse structures. Monument Valley is a food desert with only one local grocery store and everything else hours away. By providing hoop houses for community members, Holiday and her team are hoping to develop a sense of food security among the Diné.

“We want to teach the traditional practices the Diné had when they had stewardship over the land,” Holiday explained. “One of our primary focuses for the community center is establishing a curriculum that is based on cultural preservation.” 

Samantha Holiday stands in front of a hoop house where she and other community members grow vegetables. Holiday is the director of the Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgai (Monument Valley) Community Center. (Marissa Lundeen)

Despite the fierce desert wind of the afternoon biting our cheeks and hands, our group couldn’t help but smile as we experienced the warmth and joy of the community center. The COVID-19 pandemic left a deep cut among the Diné, taking many of their elders and cultural teachers. The community center not only allows the Diné to learn about the traditions of their people but gives them tools and resources to navigate the technological world they are inhabiting more effectively.

After the visit to Monument Valley, made famous in the 1994 film “Forrest Gump” and before that “Thelma and Louise” and many a cowboy Western, Shawn connected us with employees at the Healthy Transitions Iina Bihoo’aah Program in Montezuma Creek, another small community located on the reservation. There we met Curestine, Shaina, Tazbah and Delbert. Their office is a deceptively small building and looks like the kind of cozy house you’d like to come home to after a long day.

Once inside, we were surprised at how many rooms and spaces it offered. After a brief tour, we sat around a long, round table in an open room with couches and a TV that was meant to be a gathering place for local kids to hang out after school. As we discussed the needs of the Diné community, it became clear how their past and present, like one of their traditional rugs, are closely woven together.

“Our elders are our backbones,” explained Tazbah Jackson, one of the employees at the Healthy Transitions Iina Bihoo’aah. “They are the ones that teach us, and they have a lot of strength that helps us to be strong. When COVID hit and we started losing our elders, we started losing traditions. We started losing our culture. If we don’t have culture, what are we?”

Employees of the Healthy Transitions Iina Bihoo’aah Program pose outside of their office in Montezuma Creek, Utah. Healthy Transitions works with the Healthy Transitions Grant for Indigenous communities to encourage behavioral health and community empowerment for Diné youth and young adults. (Marissa Lundeen)

 Because of the loss of so many elders, cultural programs such as the ones at the Monument Valley Community Center and within the Montezuma Creek community are more important than ever in keeping the Diné culture alive. Not only do the Navajo people recognize the importance of embracing the traditions of their ancestors, but they also acknowledge the need for their community to progress in the ways of the modern world.

“The vast majority of the reservation still lives in third-world country conditions because we are so spread out and it’s hard to run electrical and water lines,” Healthy Transitions Iina Bihoo’aah employee Delbert Dickson said. “The reservation is just barely tapping into technology that those in the outside world off the reservation have had for years. I want electricity, better homes, better roads.”

By incorporating the traditions of their ancestors with some of the amenities of modern technology, the employees of Healthy Transitions Iina Bihoo’aah, an organization encouraging behavioral health and community empowerment for indigenous youth and young adults, hopes the Diné youth of today connect with their heritage and find reasons to stay on the land.

“We have to be a strong nation for our youth,” Dickson emphasized toward the end of our time together. Shaina Sagg, 25, and Curestine Harvey, 22, sat at the table with us and shared their experiences as young adults who have chosen to stay on the reservation and buoy up their community. Curestine recently returned to Montezuma Creek with her young son, emphasizing her desire for him to have the kind of appreciation for his people and the land that she developed growing up on the reservation.

As we finished our conversation and exchanged goodbyes and plans to visit again, the same warmth and camaraderie from the Monument Valley Community Center meeting washed over me. We eventually loaded into our car and began the long northbound journey home along the same bumpy roads we crossed just a day earlier, now more accustomed to their rhythm.

Driving towards the San Juan River once again, this time coming from the opposite direction, I was again struck by the intimate relationship between this land and the Diné people. There is an element of magic in the air as one walks their land and sees the striking landscape dotted with the homes of families who have been there for hundreds of years.

It’s unique to see the natural world intermingle with the manmade world so fluidly, something modernity has made exceedingly difficult. Indigenous tribes have achieved it. As the Diné strive to carry on their beliefs, traditions, and culture, they also want the world to know their people are here, and they are here to stay.

“Back in the old days, our people were herded over 300 miles to Fort Sumner in the Long Walk,” explained Dickson, referring to the brutal journey roughly 8,000 Diné women, men and children were forced to make from their ancestral homelands to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. “If our ancestors are strong enough to go through that, we can too. We can face any monsters that get in the way. We might trip, but we have to get back up, wipe the dirt off us, and start walking again.”

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