SANTA FE, NM — As of May 11, the Navajo Nation is reporting over 3,200 cases of COVID-19 — a higher per-capita rate than any state in the US. The Navajo Nation, which is home to almost 174,000 people and extends into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, is at particularly high risk in the pandemic due to factors like high rates of underlying health conditions, as well as limited access to running water and internet, and widespread intergenerational living situations. The Navajo government announced on May 12 that the state of emergency in place would continue into June.
The arts are one of the countless factions of the Navajo community that are being impacted by the pandemic. Museums are closed to the public, markets and fairs are on pause, federal aid took agonizing weeks to finally arrive, and the future is uncertain. “From an arts and arts community standpoint we’ve just been in a holding pattern, because this is unprecedented and we didn’t know how to approach and deal with something like this,” Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, told Hyperallergic. Wheeler said the museum is beginning to plan and strategize for its future, and consider how it can best benefit the community.
“Practical things, like how do we allow groups to move through our exhibits? That’s easily addressed,” he said. But a trickier issue is how to support local artists who have lost their income streams. Wheeler emphasized that under typical circumstances, the art economy on the Navajo Nation relies on in-person interaction — the clientele are fellow reservation residents, purchasing work at flea and craft markets. “How do we as a museum help [artists and craftspeople in the community]? That seems like the most impactful thing for us to do.”
While most things are at a standstill, Wheeler is hopeful about the future, and how artists might help shape it. “One of the strengths that the museum is going to draw upon, when we start to discuss our future, is creativity. Creative types are going to be the ones that have solutions that nobody else has thought about.”
Rapheal Begay, an artist who lives in the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Arizona, and serves as a public information officer for the Navajo government, echoed Wheeler’s hopeful message. He said he is using the pandemic as an opportunity to “think about my skills as an artist, my interests, my passion, my mission, and really apply it to help people, and to try and advocate for traditional and cultural teachings in terms of self-sufficiency, self-reliance.” He said artists in his community are reacting in a similar way, “utilizing their skills to find a way to help, to be involved, to be engaged, to be informed, to unify so that can implement some change.”
It’s an uplifting concept at a grim time. Heidi Brandow, an artist who lives in Santa Fe and has family who live on the Navajo reservation, described how her relatives have seen grassroots organizations using cultural practices that had fallen out of use. “Our origin stories and all of our cultural traditions, language — these are the things that are going to inform our survival in the future,” she said. Brandow is at work on a project about alternative approaches to Indigenous futurism, taking a conceptually different tack from the sci-fi oriented one she says she most often sees. “We have these preexisting tools, how can we modify those to inform us?”
Begay and Wheeler offered similar messages about how turning inward might be the best way to move forward. Begay said “tribal knowledge and tribal philosophies are going to be the frameworks that shape the future,” and Wheeler emphasized the importance of involving community members in the re-envisioning of the museum’s future: “There’s no better people to discuss that with than the people who actually know the rez. … The best ideas have always come from people that live and work in the community.”
Chip Thomas, an African-American artist who has lived and worked on the Navajo Nation for over three decades, created a “Diné COVID PSA” which he said in an Instagram post is “part of a larger collaborative project that is currently underway with poets and visual artists.” Collaborating with two other artists, Thomas created the poster to help raise awareness about how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. People are encouraged to download and print the poster from the Art Journal Open website, and share it as a “visible act of solidarity.”
As the pandemic causes some people to reflect on their purpose and how they can give back, and many are feeling helpless and overwhelmed, Begay said “artists are creating positive messages using photography and cultural Indigenous perspectives and aesthetics to relate to the communities they care about.” Begay’s own artistic practice includes an ongoing project titled A Vernacular Response, which engages with the Navajo past and future through intimate portraits of life on the Navajo Nation.
Begay added: “This shift in awareness, recognition, acknowledgement of our reality … has allowed me to really think about the significance of my work as an artist from the Navajo Nation, and the messages I want to communicate and how those messages might reflect or challenge my community.”