Monday, May 18, 2020

Utah Lawyers Rally Help for Hard-hit Navajo Nation
By Lee Benson, Columnist 
May 17, 2020, 6:30pm MDT

The small town of Halchita, San Juan County, is surrounded by desert in the Navajo Nation on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — At first look, it makes no sense. Why should the spread of coronavirus on the Navajo Nation rival that of New York City?

The Navajo Nation Reservation is sprawled out over 27,000 square miles in parts of New Mexico, Arizona and a strip of southeastern Utah. With a population of 175,000, that works out to seven people per square mile, or one person for every 91 acres.

In New York City, the five boroughs occupy 302 square miles. With a population of 8.4 million, that works out to 27,000 people per square mile, or one person for every 3/100ths of an acre.

Small wonder the New York metropolitan area, where 6 feet of spacing is how far away from you the cabbie is when he honks his horn, leads the country in transmission of the virus.

But as it turns out, many of the same conditions that make social distancing difficult in New York also apply in the Navajo Nation.

Despite the big sky and wide open spaces, native people still tend to huddle close to each other in multigenerational homes. And considering there are only 13 grocery stores on the entire reservation, they are constantly bumping into one another when they shop for supplies.

Add in that water is scarce — an estimated third of reservation houses do not have running water, making extensive and effective hand-washing difficult — and the fact that diabetes, heart disease, asthma, obesity and high blood pressure — the infamous “underlying conditions” — are prevalent among the Diné, New York and the Navajo Nation are practically blood brothers when it comes to fighting off, or not fighting off, the pandemic.

Of course, the plight of New Yorkers has been well documented, with the mayor and governor nightly regulars on CNN and commensurate relief flooding in to help stem the tide.

As for the Navajo Nation, given the remote location, sovereignty and traditional stoicism of the people, the plight has been more slowly revealed.

But thanks in large measure to a group of lawyers in Salt Lake City, the crisis and urgent needs of the Navajo are coming sharply into focus. Help, if belated, is on the way.

These lawyers belong to the Indian Law Section of the Utah State Bar. They come from various institutions, organizations and firms, but have one common goal: to improve the quality of life for Native Americans.

The leader of the group is Heather Tanana, a research law professor at the University of Utah. It was Tanana who personally organized the Indian Law Section in 2016, creating a branch of the bar that previously did not exist.

And it is Tanana who has led the efforts to create Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief — a crusade to collect needed aid, in the form of both physical supplies and monetary funding, for the beleaguered Navajo Nation. (For full details and information, go to

Helping the Diné is a role Tanana was born to play. Not only is she Navajo — she comes from the Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House) clan — but she is the daughter of a legendary physician who has made it his life’s work to improve the health of the Navajo people. Heather’s dad is Dr. Phil Smith. After growing up on the reservation, Smith attended BYU, where he met his wife Joann, and after that enrolled in the University of Utah medical school. He first practiced medicine in clinics on the reservation before moving his growing family — Heather is the fourth of eight siblings — to Rockville, Maryland, where he became chief medical officer for the Indian Health Service, the federal agency that oversees health care for Native Americans.

A few years ago, after retiring from his post with the government, he and Joann moved back to the reservation, settling down in Monument Valley, where he works in the clinic today.

From her 71-year-old father, Tanana has heard firsthand what the Navajo people are facing in the pandemic, including the news that her aunt, her father’s older sister, died of COVID-19 at a nursing facility in Gallup, New Mexico.

She knows that stopping the dying and the spread of the disease means creating conditions that allow the Navajo to safely practice social distancing.

“The feedback we’ve been getting is that they are surprisingly meeting the demands of PPE (personal protective equipment), which is great,” said Tanana. “So we’ve been focusing on providing the food and cleaning supplies that will enable people to safely isolate in their homes and not go out.”

Besides the Navajo Nation, Utah’s seven other Indian tribes will also receive COVID-19 relief aid.

More than a dozen agencies, a mix of public and private entities, have joined the effort, including the Backcountry Santas, a group of pilots who deliver Christmas presents to the Navajo Nation and have agreed to help ferry the coronavirus relief items.

“There are many, many others here in Utah who care about our tribal members in the state and want to help,” said Tanana. “The commitment and drive has been for me a bright light in all of this. It’s not just my personal crusade.”

With help, time, and a little luck, the hope is that the Navajo Nation can soon return to a world where its only similarity with New York City is that they are both on the same planet.

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