A Nation Forgotten

The plight of the Navajo people in our own backyard

The travel bug is highly contagious to Harvard undergrads, as 60 percent of students have international experiences during college. While these four years are certainly an opportune time to expand our horizons, learn a new culture, and use our interests and skills working in other parts of the world, we forget sometimes that there are domestic opportunities that provide valuable experience, and teach us about overlooked populations and other cultures within the United States.

There are great ways to contribute aid and volunteer time to important projects across the world that carry with them the promise of travel to exotic countries and nature. With air travel increasingly rapid and affordable in the 21st century, it also becomes easier and easier to jet across the world for a week. Sadly, we are faced with the externality of less attention being given to the scale of suffering that takes place across our own country on a daily basis. As the government faces up to the prospect of budget cuts over the next few years, it may very well be that social welfare and development aid comes under fiscal attack—a threat exemplified by the proposed cuts to Americorps. With this in mind, it is more important than ever that young people get involved on an active basis and that institutions like Harvard help us to do so.

This past J-term, a group of ten Harvard students travelled to New Mexico to deliver health care to people that are historically more ‘American’ than most of us, the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation is the largest tribe in America with over 250,000 people, and it spans the states of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. In spite of the expansive territory they occupy, the Navajo have a very low standard of living. Over 56 percent live below the poverty level, and unemployment rates are ten times as high as other parts of America. The infrastructure within the reservation is largely underdeveloped, leaving many people isolated in their homes, with infrequent means of transportation.

The Harvard students went to the Navajo Nation with a pediatrician and an epidemiologist to screen children for developmental problems, and they also delivered firewood and canned food to people who lived in remote locations. The students spent a substantial amount of their time on the reservation traveling on terrible roads. The firewood and canned food they distributed was essential to some of the Navajo people who who had no other means of getting around. “Traveling through the reservation is reminiscent of traveling through a third world country,” Shalini Pammal ’13, observed in an interview. “Its very striking to see how impoverished a community like the native reservations can be within America because you typically aren’t made aware of it on a day to day basis.” She also noted that alcoholism seemed to be very prominent among the Navajo people, as some would leave the reservation to buy alcohol at surrounding gas stations at 8 a.m. in the morning. Quality education was also a struggle as the Head Start (federally funded preschools for low-income families) preschools were frequently closed due to impassible mud after rain. Many Navajo in the area where Pammal and the other students worked live in small, shoddy houses with no electricity, unsafe drinking water, and outhouses for toilets. In some cases, there were very large families living on unsustainable wages.

There seems to be some disconnect and strife between the Navajo and the authorities because the government will give them a checklist of standards and things to do, but they are not provided the tools necessary to do them.  The government has also been slow to respond to the health risks of the Navajo, including radiation from 520 open uranium mines. The radioactive material from these mines increases the risk of developing lung and bone cancers, as well as kidney problems. The government is starting an assessment - not a cleanup - of the damage done by the mines, but it isn’t expected to be completed until 2019.

While Pammal and her group were only in the Navajo Nation for a week, she admits it was “very disheartening to feel like you are only able to do so much, when they have so many issues that need to be addressed and brought to the attention of the rest of the country.”

This trip, organized through Philips Brooks House Association is one of many opportunities through different organizations on campus that allows students to explore domestic areas of need, and perhaps more students should look into opportunities like this that allow them to get to know relatively overlooked populations within America. While many of us have great ideas and intentions to ‘save the world,’ we forget that in addition to identifying problems outside our borders, sometimes we needn’t look farther than our own backyard.

Meredith C, Baker ’13 is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays

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