The Diné have weathered curfews and high rates of infection. The Nation is one of the hardest hit areas in the United States: 9,019 people have tested positive and 454 have died of Covid-19, as of July 30, according to the Navajo Department of Health.
Many households do not have running water, at a time when hand washing is critical. Many multigenerational families live together in compounds, which makes social distancing impossible. And for the Diné and many other Indigenous nations, the public health crises caused by food inequality are generations old.
“This virus has really shown how fragile and even unreliable the system really is, and how quickly everything can collapse,” said Nate Etsitty, 40, a food sovereignty advocate who has been helping Ms. Brown with her garden. “That’s what is driving more people to be partially more self-sustained.”
After seeing food shortages during the pandemic, many Diné have started gardens. Normally, they would work communally, but social distancing has required some innovations. This year, Mx. Etsitty (who uses gender-neutral pronouns and titles) has been helping first-time gardeners through the complex processes from afar. Other experienced gardeners, inundated with requests for help, are recording videos.
Felix Earle, 43, one of Mx. Etsitty’s closest friends, has been advising gardeners growing Indigenous seeds. In 2015, he found a handful of white corn kernels in a jar, 35 years after his grandmother hid them for safekeeping. He named the strain “Grandma Helen’s Corn.” Its kernels look like little white teeth, perfect and round.
This year, Mr. Earle, a fashion designer, planted his biggest crop ever. Across his property, stalks of corn are rising, almost 1,000 in all. He turned his discovery into a business, Red Earth Gardens, and gives kernels to interested members of the Nation. This year, for the first time, he ran out.