Navajos Lose Their Wisdom Keepers

By Laurel Morales
Published: Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 8:40am

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Jeneda and Dahi
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
Jeneda Benally and her daughter, Dahi.

The Navajo don’t usually talk about death. They believe to talk about it is to bring it upon them. But since the tribe’s coronavirus infection rate has become the highest in the country, they can’t help but talk about it.

“It’s killing everyday,” said medicine man Ty Davis. “It put me into shock. What do we do now? How do we retrieve that knowledge that these elders once knew now that they have died with those ceremonies? How do we get those back?”

Davis knows of at least five traditional practitioners who have died from issues related to COVID-19. 

Jeneda Benally just lost her aunt to the virus. 

“I am really emotional about this, because it’s so painful to lose so many loved ones,” Benally said.

Benally is a traditional medicine practitioner who works alongside her father. He developed a program that paved the way for the rest of Indian Country to incorporate traditional practitioners into western hospitals.

“I felt very early on during this pandemic that I needed to protect my father so that way he can continue to help people in order to protect our future generations,” Benally said.

COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting older tribal members throughout Indian Country. On the Navajo Nation, 157 people have died from issues related to coronavirus. The deaths of these elders means the loss of ceremonies, stories, language and cultural wisdom.

Four decades ago there were almost 1,000 Navajo medicine people. Today that number has dropped to 300. And the number of ceremonies has been cut in half — fewer than 20. 

Medicine man Avery Denny is attempting to change that by taking on apprentices at Diné College. But Denny says the process takes time — much more than a four-year degree will allow.

Diné College
Diné College
Diné College is developing a program to help train medicine men and women.

“I have great great concerns,” Denny said. “Young people are acculturated, assimilated, dominated. They’re losing their language and their culture.”

Denny said he’s up against decades of historical trauma. The federal government forced tribes to relocate, sent Native children to boarding schools where they were beaten for speaking their language for singing their songs. 

Melissa Walls, a professor at the Center for American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins University, said federal officials exposed Native Americans to disease. 

“The word virus and the concept of a virus is one of the tools that has been used by our government to try to eradicate native people. Smallpox is an example,” Walls said.

Walls said federal officials gave tribes smallpox-infested blankets in the 1800s.

“This pandemic can trigger historical memories of that trauma or ancestral memories of that trauma but can also trigger historical resilience,” Walls said. “I hear people saying, you know our ancestors made it through we’re going to make it through.”

Clayson and Jeneda Benally have been contemplating how to be resilient.

“It’s been a slow systematic genocide,” Clayson Benally said. “People don’t realize this has been a volatile situation long before this pandemic. This pandemic is just illustrating what has been brewing beneath the surface.”

"Young people are acculturated, assimilated, dominated. They’re losing their language and their culture."
— Avery Denny, medicine man

The brother and sister are producing YouTube videos to share Navajo cultural practices like how to dry farm and how to shear sheep. 

“We’ve got this technology,” Jeneda Benally said. “How are we going to find hope in this technology? How are we going to find the continuation of our culture where we can connect our elders to our youth?”

The dilemma is figuring out what parts of their culture they can share with the world and what they keep to themselves, as they honor the tradition that there’s sacred knowledge that can only be passed down from one Navajo to another. 

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