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The Solace Of Playing Golf In The Navajo Nation Amid The Pandemic

Every day, Donald Benally golfs.

It takes his mind off the coronavirus outbreak pummeling the Navajo Nation, killing at least 38 and infecting 921 victims as of Wednesday.

Like many Navajo people, Benally wonders whether the dead and afflicted are undercounted. He wonders if the virus had anything to do with the deaths of his 82-year-old uncle and 66-year-old cousin, who both recently died from "heart attacks."

He worries about elders, toughing it out in remote areas without enough food or water or medicine. He thinks about his daughter, Katelyn Rae, huddling in her Northern Arizona University dorm room in Flagstaff. She's so alone, but he can't bring her home. There's no internet in his house in Steamboat, a remote community on the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation.

So Donald Benally plays golf, and the worries diminish for a little while. "I feel like I totally forget about what's going on with this pandemic," he said. "It helps."

Just a few weeks ago, Benally, a 55-year-old project manager for the Navajo Nation, was planning what needed to be done to prepare the Wagon Trail to Lonesome Pine golf course - an expanse of clustered blue sage, rocks, gullies and sand visited by an occasional cow, horse or sheep - for a summer of "rez golf" that would culminate in a popular community tournament. Now the tournament will likely be canceled. And Benally is hunkering down with his wife, Jean, in their house overlooking the 9-hole course he and his friends and family created more than a decade ago.

Rez golf is embedding itself in the Navajo sports culture, one course at a time. There are at least three rez golf courses on the nation's 27,425 square miles spanning swaths of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The gritty courses, set amid red and gray sands and wind-sculpted cliffs, share the landscape with livestock, coyotes and rabbits. They hold special meaning to many Navajo golfers because they wind through clumps of sagebrush, a plant thought to have physical and spiritual healing power.

"You're physically engaged in golf, but at the same time, without consciously knowing it, you're helping yourself because you're smelling that sage, you're hearing that sage move," said Chinle golfer Olin Littleman, who plays at the Wagon Trail to Lonesome Pine course in Steamboat.

The Wagon Trail to Lonesome Pine course is probably the best known rez golf course because it was featured in a Golf Channel video sponsored by Callaway.

But since the pandemic hit the Navajo Nation, Benally said, he sees only a lone player where there were once many. Benally is a gregarious guy and loves to talk golf, but now he stays inside his house when he spots a golfer on the course.

"I have my family to think about," he says. "I can't just go out there and start socializing with so-and-so and come back here. I mean . . . it's real scary."

Navajo Nation's Andrew Cuomo

The Navajo Nation issued its first warning about the coronavirus on Jan. 26. It has called in the National Guard to assist with setting up a medical facility. It has lobbied Arizona senators to help it free up funding. It has enlisted the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In hopes of keeping the contagion down, it's shuttered chapter houses, the headquarters of local community governments. Schools have been closed for weeks. Rodeos, a marathon and bingo games were canceled. It imposed a curfew for the Easter weekend.

But it's now facing a bureaucratic funding logjam in the federal government, which means the Navajo Nation isn't getting all the financial help it needs to adequately combat the coronavirus.

Amid all this, the Navajo Nation president and vice president both went into self-quarantine on April 9 after meeting with a first responder who later tested positive for the virus.

Jonathan Nez, the president, is a respected leader who has become the Navajo Nation's Andrew Cuomo. A slender, bespectacled guy, Nez wore blue plastic gloves and a black Columbia zippered jacket when he recently took to Facebook to ask his constituency to flatten the runaway curve. He delivered a mixture of hope and bleak statistics. He guilt-tripped, reasoned, and inspired his people to take the virus seriously.

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Only one person from a household goes to the grocery store, he instructed, and please don't leave the Navajo Nation boundaries. Obey the evening curfew. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Take care of the elders because they are the teachers.

He invoked Navajo resiliency by referencing the mid-19th century Long Walk, the U.S.
government's forced march of thousands of Navajo people from their homeland to Bosque Redondo, in eastern New Mexico. Thousands perished on the way, and others died in confinement. In 1868, after four years, the Navajo survivors returned to their homeland after signing a treaty that ensured their sovereignty.

But their sovereignty goes only so far. It's limited by a mishmash of historic treaties, federal court actions, and overriding national policies. And now the federal government, which is largely responsible for health care on the Navajo Nation, is slow in delivering necessary funds to deal with the pandemic. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act promises $8 billion to Native American governments for "preventing, preparing for, and responding to coronavirus," according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The law took effect March 27. At this writing, the Navajo Nation still awaits its share.

In Arizona, the coronavirus is killing disproportionately in the Navajo Nation. Thirty-nine people have succumbed to the virus in Maricopa County, which includes the Phoenix metro area and has a population of about 4.3 million people. In the Navajo Nation, where close to 174,000 people live, 38 have died.

But no one really knows for sure how many have died of the virus on the Navajo Nation. Myron Lizer, the Navajo Nation's vice president, said in an April 2 phone call with Bureau of Indian Affairs and U.S. Treasury Department officials that he's getting texts that indicate people are dying of the coronavirus but it is not "attributed" to the virus.

The Navajo Nation did not respond to three requests for interviews for this story.

Now, nonprofits and grassroots groups are taking action. No one wants to wait for the federal government to decide how to hand out its relief funds. There's no time. Elders in remote areas are in need of prescription refills, transportation to doctor's appointments, food, water, cooking and heating fuel. Children are hungry.

"If we lose people not to the disease, but to starvation or freezing, it highlights that there is something very wrong in the system," said Brett Isaacs, the CEO of Navajo Power, a solar development company.

Isaacs is collaborating with a local community development group to "bypass" the Navajo Nation government in order to get services to people who need it.

A New 'Long Walk'

Reparata Ben sometimes looks out her window at the rez golf course her family built among the cedars and sagebrush in Low Mountain, Arizona. As I spoke to her on the phone, the April wind rattled a speed limit sign on Navajo Route 65, which winds past her solid block house and cuts through the nine-hole golf course. Tumbleweeds scampered across the empty course, with its white benches and holes made of tin cans.

Ben, 43, is an accountant who graduated from the University of New Mexico and then returned home to the Navajo Nation. Her family created the course for the community and usually holds a tournament in the fall. Food is central to the tournament - pastries and coffee in the morning, filling sack lunches, and an enormous dinner after players have gone around the course twice. The feast changes each year, but there's usually plenty of mutton stew and fry bread, and maybe a roast beef dinner with two salads, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and dessert. The idea is to feed everyone who stops by.

Hunger has always been a problem in the Navajo Nation.

Now, with the coronavirus outbreak, it's getting worse, especially among children. Ambrose Ben, Reparata Ben's 62-year-old father, sees the hunger when he delivers sack lunches to students who used to attend classes at Jeehdeez'a Elementary School. Sometimes the kids stand outside their homes waiting for him.

A traditionalist, he follows the advice of some elders and won't talk about the outbreak directly.

It's taboo, for now. There will be plenty of time to tell stories about the pandemic once it's gone and its lessons become clear. But for now, Ambrose Ben washes his hands, practices social distancing, stays home with his family, and plays rez golf alone on the wind-swept course.

The ancestors endured the Long Walk, is how he sees it.

And now "it's our turn."

This post originally appeared in Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America and Slate.

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Previously: Rez Ball.

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