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Cultural, Language Barriers Complicate Public Health Messages On Navajo Nation

Adrian Lerma/NPR

There are now more than 900 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation. Government officials have instituted curfews and travel bans in an effort to slow the spread. But communicating about the disease to tribal members can be challenging. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Navajo Nation council delegate Nathaniel Brown about cultural taboos and other barriers to public health messages.

Melissa Sevigny: Just start by telling me how things are going on the Navajo Nation right now with the spread of the coronavirus disease.

Nathaniel Brown: This is actually really scary because it’s people we know that are getting sick, it’s families we know. Especially when you have people calling you coughing, trying to breathe, and they’re begging you, “Can you make a phone call? I’m sitting in the emergency room but they’re not seeing me. I don’t have all the symptoms.” And they’re clearly, listening to them, they’re trying to breathe, and even on the other side of the phone, it’s really hard to listen to that... It really plays with you mentally, if you’re not mentally strong, but I have to dig deep into our Navajo teachings. We’re drinking a lot of sage. We are drinking a lot of other herbal medicines that Grandma and Grandpa are making for us… Lately I think a lot of our people don’t do those practices. We’ve got accustomed to the conveniences of food, grocery stores. This has really opened our eyes. Now we’re talking about true sustainability, farming. But as far as this pandemic on the Nation, it’s a reality call. I hope that a lot of our Navajo people and people in general wake up.

I’m wondering how you’re putting out messages about the coronavirus disease in the Diné, in the Navajo language?

Good question. I was just on the radio and I really talked about the main components, which are: social distancing, staying home, just quarantining… My three communities of Dennehotso, Chilchinbeto, Kayenta and Kayenta township, we have been having meetings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with the community health representatives. They’re the boots on the ground that know where every family lives… Navajo is a very descriptive language, so we have to describe it. Those are the challenges, but we’re all learning a lot, also.   

How did you translate COVID-19 into Diné?

They’re calling it the Dikos Ntsaaígíí-Náhást'éíts'áadah, that means the big coughing sickness, and Náhást'éíts'áadah is 19. Now everybody’s pretty much familiar with that, that’s COVID-19. We explain it goes through your lungs, you’ll have shortness of breath, a tight chest, you can’t smell, you can’t taste, you’ll have flu-like symptoms. We have to explain that to them.

Those have to got to be very difficult conversations to have, especially with your elders who are very vulnerable to this disease.

It’s so funny how the roles have switched. Now we as the younger generation are telling our parents and grandparents, no, stay home, don’t go! People calling me, saying, “Nate, since you’re an elected council delegate, can you call my parents? They won’t listen to us children.” … Then there’s also a Navajo taboo, where people say you don’t put too much of your energy into it, you shun it, you keep it out of your home….So these are conversations, some of them are pretty hard to have. With our elders in Navajo, some of them say, if you call it you’re going to invite it. You’re telling it to come here to me. That’s something that we want to be respectful also, we want to be culturally sensitive in how we relay this message.

Nathaniel Brown, thank you so much for speaking with me, appreciate it.

Thank you.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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