I turned 40 at the end of March, during quarantine, and my cousin Autumn’s handmade birthday card, which arrived the week of Mother’s Day was a pleasant surprise. All her correspondence is deeply thoughtful, often spiritual with quoted scripture, and labor-intensive. Much of it incorporates watercolor landscapes from around her home in Gallup, New Mexico. Each letter is a gift. In February her Christmas card arrived. A painted hogan and pickup truck in the snow adorned the front and the greeting inside was hand-stamped.
Autumn is a firstborn daughter, like me, and sixth months my senior. Unlike me, her dad—an artist, teacher and retired cross country coach—is Navajo (Diné). Our Dutch-American mothers are sisters from Chicago. While my mom still lives in Chicago, Auntie Hushie has lived in Gallup as a teacher and mother for over forty years. As a newborn, I boarded—or rather was boarded onto—a flight for my first vacation, where I met my first cousin, my first friend, my future lifelong pen pal. In the Mother’s Day birthday card, she called me her cousin-sister and then explained in the post script that it was a “term on the rez.” She said we’re cousin-sisters because we aren’t just related by clan but more closely by blood. We’ve always seemed more sisters than cousins, so now it’s just official.
In May, Gallup made national headlines for tragically bolting—seemingly out of nowhere—to the #4 hotspot in the United States for new coronavirus cases. Seeing this on cable news I immediately had a visceral hunch about why it was suffering. We’ve seen the data on how communities of color in Detroit and Chicago are disproportionately affected, and killed, by COVID-19. Gallup is on the edge of the Navajo Nation and a place with not a lot of marketable resources or material advantages but of warm, welcoming people and majestic land.
Naturally, my response to the news story was to make some mail. “How are you, Autumn?” I jotted on a postcard, “How can I pray for your community in this crisis?” By the time Gallup was the #1 hotspot for the coronavirus, I’d already heard back from her on a trio of postcards dated May 14th. She was well but busy homeschooling her three kids and sending food boxes all over the reservation. “People need water,” she wrote. “People need cleaning supplies. People are afraid to go out. People are also running around without masks and gloves, so the biggest need I see is education.”
When I talked to Auntie Hushie the following week she shared potentially good news about water. The federal economic recovery package, called the CARES Act, didn’t include any money for the Navajo Nation so it sued the federal government for $600 million dollars and got it. The tribe planned to use much of the funds to install running water to the 30% living without it throughout the reservation. But the money has to be spent by the end of the year and can only cover costs directly caused by the pandemic. On two fronts, the project may not qualify.
I asked why she thought the Navajo Nation has been hit so hard by COVID-19. She surprised me by saying she thought lifestyle health factors and underlying chronic conditions such as obesity and high blood pressure were greater factors than inadequate access to healthcare or lack of running water needed for hand washing. Yet the most significant underlying condition, in a sense, is the historical trauma of white supremacy. “They are tired,” said Auntie Hushie, “of white people telling them what to do.”
It’s difficult to discuss Gallup and the Navajo Nation without introducing the land. The soil is all but agriculturally useless, providing almost nothing edible unless you’re a goat or can subsist on pinecone nutmeats. Still it is fiercely beloved of the Navajo people. I spent a lot of childhood time there and never heard anything but humble praise and deep respect for this land’s gifts: red rocks pushed into enormous, hike-able piles, sandstone monoliths, carved canyons and funky plateaus. Looking at them you can imagine massive currents of water lifting and dropping loose rock, sculpting this ancient sea bed, now a desert dotted with piñon and gnarled juniper.
The elevation is high, the sky expansive and so often generously blue—only cranky with storms in short bursts you can see coming on the horizon. Like an anxious-to-please older sister, the sky seems to overcompensate, overly apologize for what the dry, infertile earth below cannot give. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking Rebecca Solnit describes New Mexico as “both lavish and impoverished” and I’ve thought often about the many ways in which that’s true.