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COVID-19 Reflections from John Hosteen

February 2021

Yá’át’ééh and greetings my CPHE relatives! Navajo Nation has been in the news so much in the past year. It’s interesting to watch these stories and wonder how the world views us. Most of what I have seen and heard in the media has been disheartening. The Navajo Nation is described as; suffering, hardest hit, worst, highest rates, forgotten, and unprepared. The fact that we were never on par with the rest of the country in response to the pandemic was never new to me. What did rattle me was the speed and magnitude of the spread. COVID-19 exposed the facade and delusional perceptions that the Navajo Nation could rely on western social and economic systems to shield us from the brunt of the pandemic. So just like in a deteriorating Navajo Hogan, the holes and gaps were exposed and the people inside could not repair and respond quickly enough to what was about to come. Rather than adding to stories already told, I’d like to provide a personal glimpse of what I have experienced in the last year.

Realization came swift but I could sense its arrival for years. While an undergrad at Ft. Lewis, I wrote about vulnerabilities and climate change for my senior thesis. It was scary to imagine what could happen. In March of last year, I remember being in Flagstaff, AZ for a gathering of all the health promotion departments for the Navajo Nation. The focus was on cancer screening but it was also a chance for us to showcase our own health promotion programs. And of course, I boasted about my partnership with Community Partnership for Health Equity, MEDDIC, and my collaborators from Oakland, Milwaukee, Albuquerque, the Bronx, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. At that moment I didn’t realize that I was entering a span of time in which fear and division would supplant the hope and unity derived from all these friendships and partnerships.

I have measured this span of time from March to now by the length of my hair. For those of you who have seen me or joined me for dinner or a workshop, I like to look sharp. Not many people meet a Diné man in my field of work and therefore I like to look presentable. My hair has been growing for a year now and it’s a daily reminder for me of what I have observed and felt. I can’t speak for the rest of my team here on Navajo but I found this reassuring. This simple act of letting my hair grow has taught me so much about patience and steadfastness. No matter how annoyed or frustrated my hair made me I would not make any unnecessary trips to the border towns for a haircut. Instead I would reminisce about the barber school in Havana and imagine how such a skill set could be transplanted here on Navajo. At the same time I always appreciated the belief that length of hair is equated with wisdom and this pandemic has pushed me to understand the details as to why our homeland was hit so hard by the virus.

During my cultural presentations on wellness and leadership, I always acknowledge the Woodpecker for his selfless character in the Diné Origin stories. Birds in general play a very pivotal role in our stories. In my pursuit to understand how and why our Navajo communities were so hard hit, I did not turn away from any request for help that was asked of me. Fear became just as infectious as COVID-19 and so I often found myself volunteering to help any way I could. I wanted to emulate the character of the Woodpecker in our emergence stories. Just as in the stories of the Diné people emerging from four lower worlds. The COVID-19 pandemic feels eerily similar to how the second world was destroyed.

The Blue World was inhabited by the Bird People and it was the Bird People who selflessly offered their feathers to fan and cleanse the Five Fingered Diné People of the sickness killing the people of the Blue World. This narrative is retold every year during the winter months, and to be living and witnessing this ancient narrative unfold in the present time is unsettling and bewildering.

I don’t know if my colleagues came to this same prophetic realization, but I would like to share it now with everyone. When March comes again I will be 37. Just within a year, I feel that the stories and teachings I have been sharing, the new friends who have come into my life, and this shift in thinking and perceiving the world has been profound for me and I am grateful to have this experience to share. This is what I want to hear in the stories as we move forward. And I will continue to relentlessly help my people find solutions to our vulnerabilities and challenges.


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