I saw today in a tweet from @indianz that the Executive Director of the Navajo Nation’s Department of Health, Dr Jill Jim, has been appointed to the Biden-Harris Covid-19 Advisory Board. In interviews, she looked forward to helping to “prepare an urgent, robust and professional response to the global public heath crisis”.
Her statement is remarkably generous. The Navajo went into this crisis as among the most disadvantaged of groups in North America. 173,000 Navajo live on a reservation of 27,000 square miles stretching over parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah (including Monument Valley). They are poor: thirty percent of their houses do not have running water or electricity; they have high rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity; and they are now suffering among the highest rates of Covid deaths in the United States.
Their plight has been worsened by the administration’s neglect – and Trump has paid the price. In his 2016 victory, Trump had the support of 45% of Najavos. This time the figure dropped to 10% or so – and Biden took Arizona by 12,000 votes. As Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation, explained: “Navajo people were tired of being ignored by the administration and wanted no more of this divisiveness. People cast their vote for change and healing.”
Oppressed by a virus brought into America from outside, their thoughts – and those of all Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas – must turn to the past. Over the centuries since first contact with European colonisers, Indigenous people have run a genocidal gamut of oppression, murder, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and the destruction of their environment.
And the potential for them to successfully resist deliberate aggression was destroyed ab initio by wave after wave of lethal epidemics. Smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, and later malaria, diphtheria, typhus and cholera – diseases to which the Indigenous peoples had no resistance – wiped out nations, tribes, communities, families.
In an extraordinary piece of research published last year, academics from University College, London and Leeds University show how this horrific death toll left its mark in the ice of Antarctica. In the timeline of drilled-out ice cores, the period from first contact to the early 1600s shows an anomalous decline in atmospheric CO2. And the loss of this global warming gas meant that the world’s air temperature dropped by 0.15 degrees centigrade.
The research demonstrates that the dip in CO2 and the consequent fall in temperature was caused by the depopulation of the Americas. They estimate that in 1492, around 60,500,000 people lived in the Americas, North and South. Over the next century or so, the period of the anomaly in the Antarctic ice cores, the Indigenous population declined by 90% – so in just a few decades, 65 million people became 6.5 million survivors.
Given that on average one person relied food from one hectare (about two football fields), this incredible death rate meant that huge tracts of land under cultivation simply returned to the wild. And this return of trees, shrubs and prairies pulled sufficient carbon from the air to cool the Earth. The science is neat – but the implications horrific.
The persecution continued – though it isn’t revealed in the Antarctic ice cores. One terrible episode occurred in 1831: the entire Chocktaw Nation was force-marched from their ancient homelands to a distant reservation. Their Trail of Tears left many dead from starvation and exposure. But for all that was done to them, they did not lose their compassion. When, two decades later, the Choctaw heard of the similar fate of the Irish dying on their own famine marches, they sent the people of Ireland what little money they had. Their kindness is remembered to this day and commemorated by the beautiful Kindred Spirits Monument in Midleton, County Cork – and Irish people, including Leo Varadkar, have visited the Choctaw to thank them.
So, this year, when the Navajo made their own desperate appeal for help the Irish responded incredibly. In 48 hours they donated $500,000 and the total is now over $3 million. The drummer of the pop group U2, Larry Mullen, gave $100,000; Patricia Mullane donated $20 – “It’s not much but it’s given with gratitude for the help sent to Ireland by Native Americans during our Famine”. Thomas Joyce donated $57 – “I wanted to get my donation up to the $107 the Choctaw sent to Ireland. Thank you for your help. I might not be around today without it.”
In her expression of thanks, the Attorney-General of the Navajo Nation, Doreen McPaul, said “It is the good in all of the bad that is going on” .
If you know anyone of Irish descent who might be interested to give support, the Navajo’s fundraising page is at: https://www.gofundme.com/f/xjgrfa-navajo-amp-hopi-families-covid19-relief-fund
The distressing reality of Covid 19 among the Navajo made by Vice News – https://youtu.be/mi7pFfpWfyY
The generosity of the Irish – the opening clip shows the Choctaw memorial – https://youtu.be/2cLmMqbhYtA
A nice film made in better times by a young Navajo – https://youtu.be/DCZkJ9XcP8Y
Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492 Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark M. Maslin, and Simon L. Lewis Quaternary Science Reviews 207 (2019) 13-36 – an open access article under the CC BY license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)