Witnessing the pandemic with the Navajo Nation (Diné Bikéyah)

Eugénie Clement, a visiting graduate student researcher at UCLA, spent June through September 2020 working with mutal aid groups in New Mexico responding to the Covid-19 crisis being experienced by the Navajo Nation (Diné Bikéyah in the Diné language).

Witnessing the pandemic with the Navajo Nation (Diné Bikéyah)

Navajo Nation landscape, August 2020. (Photo: Eugénie Clement.)

By Eugénie Clement*

UCLA International Institute, November 9, 2020 — Since 2016, my fieldwork has highlighted the importance of how Navajo collectives define themselves in opposition to white eco-activists. More than just rhetoric, their self-definition represents an entirely different understanding of the goal of environmental politics, one that rejects the label “activist” in favor of “protector.”

As one of my interviewees explained in 2017, “For us, it is survival, for them it’s activism.” More broadly, my research explores the social dynamics of environmental movements in general, as well as the ways in which modes of engagement are structured among the Navajo and the types of politicization that are particular to it.

Through participation in meetings, sit-ins, demonstrations, debates, marches, workshops and concerts (on and off the reservation), I have sought to understand what drives groups and individuals to organize to preserve “Dine Bikéyah,”** Mother Earth and promote Indigenous liberation; that is, to engage in the present for an uncertain future. My dissertation centers on how ecology fits into the political demands of Diné groups on and around the reservation, and how these actions and practices are transmitted between the various collectives by committed intellectuals.

Little did I know when I arrived in Los Angeles at the end of February 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic would soon hit the United States and force UCLA and most of the rest of the country to close. In the two weeks I had before lockdown, I met the staff of the Latin American Institute, got to know a little bit about political activities on campus and met faculty members from the department of anthropology, whom I was looking forward to working with and learning from.

These first weeks were delightful: everybody took the time to make me feel at home, explain how UCLA worked and gave me tips on how to live and enjoy Los Angeles. While most of my three years as a doctoral candidate must be spent conducting and writing up my research, during my time at UCLA I was supposed to act as a diplomat for France and the Institut des Amériques (IdA, Institute of the Americas) to American academia by building ties with social scientists in California and beyond, with a focus on hosting events, encouraging American scholars to travel to France and promoting the work we do at IdA.

These plans quickly became a casualty of the shutdown; it is difficult to form bonds with colleagues you never have the chance to meet in person. Plans to meet with UCLA American Indian Studies Center staff were, for example, waylaid by the campus closure.

Although I conducted nine months of fieldwork on the Navajo Nation between 2016 and 2018, I had been unable to return since and relied on friends and interlocutors to stay updated on the situation there. By the end of March, it became quite clear that the Diné reservation was becoming a COVID-19 cluster. Locked down in Los Angeles, all I could do was report on what was happening and how people were organizing mutual aid groups. I stayed in contact daily with my friends there and wrote articles. My pen was my only tool.

I found a way to make myself more useful when restrictions began to be lifted in June and it seemed safer (or at least less dangerous) to travel. Ultimately, I would spend my final four months in the U.S. on the Diné reservation. During that time, I worked with mutual-aid relief groups in New Mexico, living with friends who were using all their energy and resources to help their people.

To address the chronic lack of water that makes basic risk mitigation practices, such as frequent handwashing, difficult to implement, we delivered and installed rain water catchment systems. We unloaded food trucks, disinfected products and packed food boxes that we later delivered to Diné people who lacked access to sufficient food, water and cleaning supplies.

Areas within the Navajo Nation, like the territories of many other American Indigenous groups, frequently lack basic services, such as running water, electricity, internet access and well-paved roads. Thus for my interlocutors, it wasn’t a surprise that the Navajo nation became a COVID-19 hotspot.

The Navajo Nation sees itself as being forced to provide water, coal and oil to American corporations, while receiving mainly environmental contamination in return. The anger felt all around the United States after the death of George Floyd in late May 2020 found echoes on the Navajo Nation and in the towns bordering the reservation. For far too long, their lives and land have not mattered either.

Like any catastrophe, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities. But it has also enabled people to think outside the box and try out new ways of doing things. For my interlocutors, it reinforced the absolute need to fight for environmental justice.

Despite the extreme hardships faced by the Diné, being there with my friends as a researcher and as a volunteer was a wonderful human experience. I am very thankful to the UCLA International Institute and the Latin American Institute for hosting me and allowing me to keep working and learning with awesome academics, activists and farmers at such a difficult time.

* Eugénie Clement is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. She was the Institut des Amériques (IdA) visiting graduate student researcher at the Latin American Institute (LAI) in 2020. LAI hosts the IdA’s Pôle Californie — one of ten IdA research hubs in the Americas. Eugénie’s research focuses issues of food sovereignty, water rights and environmental conflicts related to the Navajo Nation, farmers and environmental activits.

** Diné Bikéyah is the official name of the Navajo Nation in the Diné language. Although the official name of their reservation in the United States is “Navajo Nation,” its members call themselves “Diné” rather than “Navajo,” a term coined by Spaniards during the Spanish Conquest. Using their own word for themselves signals sovereignty and pride in their history.