NOTE – This is part two in a two-part series discussing the impact of climate change on the Navajo Nation. Click here for part 1.
The reason behind climate change may be controversial, but in this beautifully arid part of the nation, there is no doubt the climate is changing.
“When we had snow, when we had rain, We had herbs we could use for our healing, we could get them. Now some of them don’t even grow,” explained licensed counselor Ernest Harry Begay, who works on the Navajo Reservation.
The community echoes Begay’s concerns as they try to adapt in order to maintain traditions.
An agricultural science teacher at Monument Valley High School shows students how to link with their land through innovative ideas to restore traditional crops.
Terri James says Navajo culture and heritage are based on the land and the once bountiful lifestyle built in the red rock region. She believes young people especially need a connection to their heritage of living off the land.
“I think the kids gain self-confidence [and] self-esteem,” James said emotionally. “I think it’s the pride that I see the kids get.”
James explained these ties to tradition help youth put the world in perspective.
“I always think that we’re competing with the media, you know, kids all want to be superstars,” James said. “They all want to be the next Michael Jordan. But a lot of students that get done with my [agriculture] program and go out and work with elders, that becomes less important.”
While youth adapt to the environment, James said it can be difficult, since planting methods have been the same for hundreds of years.
“It’s not just something that’s more efficient, it’s actually a necessity,” James explained.
After the reservation went on lockdown for COVID-19 concerns, self-sufficiency was accentuated. The few grocery stores on the reservation closed or ran out of supplies, which capitalized on a growing health crisis for residents.
“The Utah portion of the reservation and the rest of our nation has higher rates of diabetes, respiratory illnesses, heart disease,” explained Pete Sands, who works with the Navajo Nation Department of Health. “So what we need is produce fresh food, organic food, and that’s not what’s available at the store.”
Sands believes the best way to promote healthy lifestyle is to encourage traditional ways since living off the land has proven to have positive health impacts.
“I really hope that we can just start believing in ourselves again,” Sands said. “And that’s where I was this belief and support.”
Adapting isn’t easy for an ancient culture accustomed to using history as a guide. As in all cultures, the youth are the future as they learn and teach how to survive in a rapidly changing climate.