Traditional Diné medicine practitioner Jeneda Benally, pictured here with her daughter Dahi, is trying to preserve cultural wisdom in danger of being lost during the pandemic. Laurel Morales/KJZZ
In Navajo culture to speak of death is taboo. 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 every day,” says medicine man Ty Davis, who knows at least five traditional practitioners who have died from COVID-19.
“It put me into shock,” he says. “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?”
Each medicine person specializes in different ceremonies. So when someone dies they take that knowledge with them. Over the last several decades the tribe has gone from a thousand Diné or Navajo medicine people to just 300. The coronavirus threatens the few who remain.
Medicine man Avery Denny is attempting to change that trajectory by taking on apprentices where he teaches at Diné College on the Navajo Nation.
“I have great great concerns,” Denny says.
Denny says he’s up against centuries of colonialism when it comes to preserving Navajo culture and tradition. 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.
“Young people are acculturated, assimilated, dominated. They’re losing their language and their culture,” Denny says.
Denny says white missionaries are also to blame for replacing Navajo religion.
“Christianity is the belief that our people turned to even our leadership so there’s no guidance,” Denny says. “There’s no leader that says, ‘OK we’ll turn to Navajo values and Navajo Diné medicine.'”
For instance, the Navajo president begins each meeting with a Christian prayer even though he also addresses his community in Navajo.
The loss of traditional practitioners is not just a cultural loss but also a personal one for people such as Jeneda Benally, whose aunt recently died from COVID-19.
“I am really emotional about this because it’s so painful to lose so many loved ones,” she says.
Benally is a traditional practitioner who works alongside her father who was the first medicine man to practice in a Western hospital.
“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 says.
One way she is doing that is working with her brother Clayson to produce youtube videos to share Navajo cultural practices like how to dry farm and how to shear sheep.
The Benallys hope their videos will encourage tribal members to reconnect with their culture, especially now while tribal members are spending a lot of time at home during during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve got this technology,” Jeneda Benally says. “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 Navajo culture they can share publicly and what parts are too sacred and can only be passed down from one Navajo to another.