A deadly re-opening

The Grand Canyon is re-opening, apparently without informing visitors of the Navajo Nation’s strict lockdown.

The Navajo Reservation stone entrance sign at Grand Canyon National Park. (Photo by: Bernard Friel/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Navajo Nation is tied deeply to the natural world. Its elders in particular hold invaluable knowledge about the changing environment—knowledge which climate scientists rely on to inform their research and perspectives about the planet.

It’s a bit ironic, then, that nature-lovers now pose the biggest threat to the Navajo community and its vital knowledge. That’s because over the weekend, the National Park Service decided to re-open Grand Canyon National Park—apparently without informing visitors of the Navajo Nation’s strict lockdown, curfew, and social distancing rules, which are now in place until June 7.

Combined with Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s decision to re-open Arizona’s economy over the weekend, the National Park Service’s decision to re-open the Grand Canyon has left Navajo leaders concerned that they may not be able to control what happens to their people. “Even a slow phase of reopening one of the largest tourist destinations in the world will overwhelm our communities,” Vice President Myron Lizer said in a statement.

Some Navajo activists are calling on those in the environmental community to step up and help. “We need a rapid response,” said Bleu Adams, cofounder of Protect Native Elders.

“A lot of our knowledge is held with the elders,” she added. “If they’re gone, we lose everything.”

Navajo particularly hard-hit by COVID-19

The Navajo Nation has been one of the hardest-hit areas in the country by the pandemic. According to the Washington Post, its infection and death rates are among the highest in the world, with at least 3,740 positive cases and 127 deaths. In America, its infection rate per capita is second only to New York’s.

The virus is able to spread so easily in part because of infrastructure problems and poverty. As NPR reports, “Cellphone service is spotty on the reservation. Sixty percent of Navajo lack Internet access, according to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. That means the majority of the tribe cannot get regular announcements from public health officials or tune in to regular Facebook Live town halls with the Nation's president.

In addition, “Over 30 percent of the tribe lack clean running water. Another 30 percent don't have electricity. Before the coronavirus outbreak, half the tribe was unemployed. The situation has worsened in recent weeks.”

And now, recent actions taken by Arizona’s governor and the federal government are putting the Nation at even greater risk of decimation. Over the weekend, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey eased social distancing restrictions and declared the state open for business, to the dismay of struggling Navajo leaders. (The Navajo Nation is located in three states—Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico—but most of it is in Northern Arizona). The National Park Service also re-opened Grand Canyon National Park, sparking a similar reaction.

“We are disappointed to see that Arizona is reopening,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement on Friday.

Grand Canyon opening prompts drastic measures

The Trump administration’s decision to re-open Grand Canyon National Park—which houses about 2,500 residents—is particularly dangerous, added Navajo Vice President Myron Lizer, because it opens up Navajo businesses to potentially infected outsiders. “Our Nation is still under daily and weekly curfews, our essential businesses are only supplied for the needs of our residents and not supplied for the influx of travelers,” she said.

What’s more, Nez said the National Park Service is not adequately informing travelers that Navajo is still under an emergency order until June 7, only telling Grand Canyon visitors to wear masks in public spaces.

“We cannot dictate what the federal government does with national parks, and I understand people want to recreate and visit our beautiful sites and landmarks,” Nez said, “however the Grand Canyon should inform their visitors of our existing Public Health Orders, our curfews, and that our Nation is closed to tourism.”

In the lead-up to the Grand Canyon’s re-opening, Nez took his most drastic action, and declared a 57-hour close of all businesses—including “essential” businesses like grocery stores—over the weekend.

“The weekend lockdown is to further restrict the movement of individuals on the Nation and to and from border towns,” he said.

A call for environmentalists to pay attention

There are, of course, countless reasons to preserve Native cultures, tribes and nations. But Bleu Adams thinks the environmentalist community should be particularly concerned about the Navajo’s plight.

“It has been widely recognized that Indigenous Elders hold in their life experience multigenerational wisdom, practices that are incredibly valuable for our collective journey to reverse climate change,” she said. “Right now, there is a severe risk of having these great teachers and knowledge completely wiped out.”

“This is not just a crisis for the Indigenous community, but for all of us,” she added.

When we spoke last week, Adams said she had not yet heard of any efforts from national environmental groups to bring attention to the Navajo’s coronavirus woes. On Thursday, however, the Sierra Club put out advocating for passage House Democrats’ $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill, on the basis that it would “provide much-needed relief funds to Tribal governments.”

Even the Sierra Club’s statement, however, acknowledged that “further action” would be necessary to adequately protect tribes from the virus. What that action should be is yet unclear, but the Navajo Nation is currently suing the Trump administration, seeking its “fair share” of coronavirus relief funds.

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Spare thoughts on preserving Native climate wisdom

After all these generations since Columbus, some of the wisest of Native elders still puzzle over the people who came to our shores. They look at the toll on the land and say, “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.”  … Can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?

I launched a book club for my paid subscribers last month, back when social distancing was still new and I didn’t know how to handle it. The first book we read was “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

The quote above is from that book, and I think about it a lot now. In the context of climate change, it summarizes both the problem and the solution.

We treat the natural world like a rental apartment, arbitrarily drilling holes we assume some nameless next tenant will fill. Except it’s not actually a rental; the holes can’t be filled; and the “next tenant” is everyone you love. The solution thus requires treating the natural world like a homeowner: eyes on the future. Calculated hole-drilling only.

But how exactly does a society like ours learn to live with “both feet on the shore,” as Kimmerer says—especially when everything about how we’ve lived so far is actively washing it away? That’s the critical missing piece to the climate change puzzle, and in “Braiding Sweetgrass,” she argues that this answer lies with indigenous people: those raised with multi-generational knowledge of how to live in reciprocity with the land.

“For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it,” Kimmerer writes. But you can’t learn to become indigenous to a place if there are no indigenous people to teach you, she adds. Their environmental wisdom—particularly that of elders—is irreplaceable.

What I’m reading about

AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE ACROSS THE POND. From The Guardian: “Labour is drawing up ambitious proposals to rescue the post-coronavirus economy with a radical green recovery plan focused on helping young people who lose their jobs by retraining them in green industries.

Seeking to seize the initiative on the country’s future direction once the pandemic abates, Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, has called for the plans to include creating a “zero-carbon army of young people” doing work such as planting trees, insulating buildings and working on green technologies.”

What I’m thinking about

WHAT IF I NAMED EVERY PLANT IN THE CITY? Got a little introspective about my houseplants last night while writing the newsletter.

I was sober, I swear! Sunday nights in quarantine just be like this.

What I’m listening to

BILL MCKIBBEN ON 60 MINUTES. Always nice to hear smart climate words on Big Time TeeVee, ain’t it?

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

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