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October 5, 2020; KUNM University of New Mexico

Images of leadership are very powerful, providing models for being in the world, but those images have to be chosen by followers, who then often replicate and build from that base. I write this on the night that images of strength or imagined strength are very much in contention.

The Navajo Nation has closed all of its tourist sites through the end of 2020. Even after a short but significant downturn in cases, Navajo leaders say, COVID-19 remains a threat. Navajo lands stretch across New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

With new surges happening all across the country, nineteen new cases and one new death were reported on October 4, 2020, bringing the Navajo Nation’s total to 10,441 cases and 559 deaths, respectively. The nation says it will take another look at the situation in January, but for now its responsibility is to steward the nation for those who call it home. What does that mean?

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez tells NPR’s All Things Considered that as of mid-September, half of its total population had been tested. Nez reviewed some of the measures they have taken:

We mandated our citizens to wear masks early on, in mid-April. Now, we are still mandating that. And we also incorporated roadblocks…. Right now, we have a law saying that any visitor that comes on the Navajo Nation should traverse through as quickly as possible, and our tourism economy has gotten hit hard.… We live in one of the most beautiful places in the United States, but the first thing is the health and well-being of our Navajo citizens.

NPR asked him at that time if the Navajo tribe had advice for others, and he replied with what has to be one of the timeliest quotes of the recent past: “Listen to your public health professionals. I wish many leaders throughout this country would do that, all the way up to the White House—you know, wearing masks. And you have to be a model as well. You gotta walk the talk. If you’re telling your people to do something, you’d better be doing it yourself.”

You’re a warrior if you wear a mask,” he is quoted as saying to Native News Online, “because you’re helping to save lives and to protect our children and elders. This modern-day monster known as COVID-19 is an invisible virus, and it can affect anyone of any age, ethnicity, or background. We have to keep fighting and not let up.”—Ruth McCambridge