As Northampton Community College students adjust to continuing their education online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, students at Diné College in Tsaile, AZ are struggling to do the same, but with fewer resources and in harsher conditions.
Diné College is a tribally controlled college that serves the Navajo Nation, which comprises territory in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah and is the largest Native American reservation in the United States. From 2010-14, NCC partnered with Diné College for an exchange program in which students from the two schools traded locations for a semester.
“The interpersonal relationships and cultural understanding built during this time have had lasting impact,” said NCC professor, Donna Acerra, who helped run the program.
Although it has been several years since the last exchange, all current college students can identify with one another, striving to earn a degree during a pandemic. However, while everyone is affected in some way, as with most issues in the U.S., marginalized communities are experiencing the worst of the coronavirus.
Conditions on the reservation are more rugged than what most Americans are accustomed to and not as conducive to remote learning.
A survey conducted by Diné College found that 86% of its students lack internet access and 75% do not have a laptop or computer. Establishments that may have offered computer or Wi-Fi access are closed due to shutdown orders, leaving those students with no option.
Like many college students across the country, some Diné College students relied on their enrollment in school for housing and food. With the campus closed, student homelessness and instability are on the rise. For students who do have shelter, other difficulties are present.
While the scenic beauty of the Navajo reservation is nearly unmatched the world over, its lack of infrastructure presents challenges not faced in most parts of the country. A poll of rural Americans conducted by NPR last year found that nearly 40% of households on the reservation did not have running water and about 10% did not have electricity.
These aspects of life on the reservation pose significant obstacles as residents strive to navigate through the pandemic.
The Navajo have a population of 356,000. Roughly 176,000 Navajo reside on the reservation, where the number of COVID-19 cases has reached 5,145 , the highest infection rate in the country. Of those cases, 231 have resulted in death as of May 30.
Five hospitals serve the reservation, which is a little larger than West Virginia. It was reported earlier this month that health care providers had just 28 ventilators to care for patients. There are also shortages of hospital beds and other supplies.
In late March, the U.S. government passed the Cares Act, a bill that included $8 billion for Native American communities. On May 16, $600 million was finally delivered to the Navajo Nation, 10 days later than promised. Navajo leadership said if the money arrived sooner, more lives could have been saved.
Despite the sluggish response from the U.S. government, community leaders have taken it upon themselves to organize fundraisers and provide aid for their people. Jordan Steele, a graduate of Diné College and English teacher at Tsaile Public School, has been doing his part.
Steele, a musician who is well-known in his Shiprock, NM reservation community, organized a digital music compilation and online concert that raised several thousand dollars for relief funds.
“We’re not going to ask for help, we’re going to help our own,” said Steele.
Now that the government relief funds have finally arrived and testing has been ramped up, Navajo Nation president, Jonathan Nez, said the curve is flattening. The situation, however, remains critical.
A talking point parroted by Americans who want to “reopen” the country is that most coronavirus cases are found in nursing homes and therefore should not be of enough concern to merit a nationwide shut down. But on the reservation, the Navajo are fighting, once again, to preserve their heritage.
“Within our culture, we hold our elders very highly,” said Steele, “They are our leaders, our teachers and also carriers of the knowledge.”
Steele told The Commuter that because of the U.S. government’s campaign to assimilate Native Americans, many of the previous generation of Navajo were sent to boarding schools and were denied the opportunity to be a conduit for the Navajo language and traditions.
“We have to get through this,” said Steel, “We have to take this seriously because it’s our elders that are very valuable and we have to protect them at this time.”
Residents of neighboring towns are making the Navajo’s efforts more difficult by defying shutdown orders and protesting en masse. Tourists are flocking to parks and hiking trails on the reservation, ignoring signs posted by the Navajo and leaving trash, perpetuating the historical mistreatment of Native Americans.
“I want to hike too,” said Steele, “But I don’t want to go do it on another tribe’s land.”
While the Navajo are mindful of what is at stake and remain vigilant in their fight to protect their people and culture, there are ways to stand with them in solidarity. Diné College launched a GoFundMe campaign dubbed the “Warrior Protection Fund”, which will help accommodate students transitioning to remote learning. The campaign has raised $18,000 of its $100,000 goal as of May 30.
“What began as a health emergency is now an education emergency, unless we act now,” an organizer expressed on the Warrior Protection Fund campaign page, “We cannot lose the next generation of academics and leaders due to this pandemic.”
NCC and Diné College share a history together. Those who would like to foster that connection have an opportunity to do so in the present.
Editor’s note: Chris Devlin, editor of The Commuter and author of this article, was previously acquainted with Jordan Steele, who he interviewed for this article, through their connection in the music scene.
Correction: The exchange program between NCC and Diné College was active from 2010-14, not 2011-14 as initially posted.