That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval
Scott Graham transports readers to national parks around the West in his National Park Mystery Series. Today, he reflects upon leadership and the pandemic as he drives his spouse to work on the Navajo Nation.
I carry in my glovebox a letter from the Navajo Department of Health granting me passage through roadblocks set up on the reservation during the weekend curfews that are part of Diné life during the ongoing pandemic.
This fall, I’ve been busy promoting Mesa Verde Victim, the sixth installment in my National Park Mystery series with Torrey House Press, and completing the first draft of Canyonlands Carnage, the seventh installment, due for release in August 2021. In addition, I’ve been chauffeuring my wife from our off-reservation home to her multi-day work stints at the Fort Defiance hospital in the heart of the Navajo Nation.
The view from the backyard of my wife’s employee housing on the Navajo Reservation
Despite the obvious risks that accompany her service on the medical frontlines in the time of coronavirus, my wife’s work with the Diné community and my driving across the reservation have been oddly comforting to both of us. That comfort has come from the Navajo people themselves—and their leaders.
With many families living in multi-generational homes, some without running water, the Diné community was pounded by COVID-19 in March, April, and May, as the Navajo Nation became an early pandemic hotspot along with ski resorts and New York City. But tribal leaders, using best available science and a persistent message of care, quashed the disease in their midst.
Even so, the community lost hundreds of Navajo elders in the spring. The Navajo people know loss, from ethnic cleansing, forced resettlement, and forced family separation in decades past. But they know resilience, too.
The wry, understated Navajo sense of humor remains intact, as exemplified by the response of Diné president Jonathan Nez to a question from a National Public Radio reporter about the stark differences between the Navajo Nation’s successful response to coronavirus and the US government’s failed response.
“Wear a mask,” he said, laughing. “Listen to the scientists...that goes for everybody, all the way up to the White House.”
Thirty years ago, I sought to learn what I could from the Navajo people when my wife and I lived on the reservation at the start of her career. Now, as I drive over the Chuska Mountains and along the twenty miles of stunning red rock walls leading south to the hospital, I recall that Fort Defiance was the place where the Navajo people were rounded up by the US Army and forced to make the genocidal Long Walk to Bosque Redondo.
Today, Fort Defiance is the site of the Navajo Nation’s largest medical center, a place of healing. Diné leaders are facing up to the reality of coronavirus and coping as well as possible with it, despite a stubborn and concerning increase in cases on the reservation this fall directly attributable to and associated with the nation’s massive surge of cases.
Now, to convince the rest of America to follow the Navajo Nation’s lead.
Scott Graham is the author of the acclaimed National Park Mystery series. Book seven, Canyonlands Carnage, hits shelves August 2021. Scott is also the author of five nonfiction books, including Extreme Kids, winner of the National Outdoor Book Award. Scott is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys backpacking, river rafting, skiing, and mountaineering. He has made a living as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, radio disk jockey, and coal-shoveling fireman on the steam-powered Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. He lives with his spouse, who is an emergency physician, in Durango, Colorado.
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