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Tribes are suffering 2 blows from COVID-19. Here's how you can help ... from afar

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 6/26/2020 Ernie Atencio, opinion contributor

Over the last few months, the world has been through changes that none of us could have imagined as we rang in the new year. The impacts of COVID-19 have left no one untouched. Not to mention the heart-wrenching death toll that is still climbing.

We have all been affected, but COVID-19 has not treated every population equally. Across the Southwest, tribal communities have been hit harder than most and will be struggling for a long while to keep people healthy and rebuild their economies.

In May, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York state for the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the U.S.

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One of the earliest articles I read about how the disease is inordinately affecting Navajos included an interview with an acquaintance who lives on the reservation. I had seen him a month earlier where we discussed protecting an area adjacent to a national park threatened by oil and gas development. Friends and colleagues from several Pueblo tribes have shared alarming numbers of COVID-19 cases in their communities.

a canyon with a mountain in the background: Mar. 18, 2020; Grand Canyon National Park, AZ, USA; Collin Carter and Emma Griggs (right) kiss at Mather Point at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Both are seasonal employees at Crested Butte Mountain Resort ski resort in Colorado who were forced to take a week off while their management decides what to do during the national health crisis. Due to the coronavirus COVID-19, park entrance fees are suspended, shuttle bus service is suspended and visitor centers are closed. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK © Rob Schumacher/The Republic Mar. 18, 2020; Grand Canyon National Park, AZ, USA; Collin Carter and Emma Griggs (right) kiss at Mather Point at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Both are seasonal employees at Crested Butte Mountain Resort ski resort in Colorado who were forced to take a week off while their management decides what to do during the national health crisis. Due to the coronavirus COVID-19, park entrance fees are suspended, shuttle bus service is suspended and visitor centers are closed. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK

It hits close to home. And like any crisis we are confronted with in this country, it reveals the socioeconomic and racial fault lines that lie just beneath the surface.

Tribes are key to protecting public land

These communities suffering the most are responsible for many of the national parks and protected public lands we love, and that my organization is dedicated to protecting.

Before it was designated a national park, the Grand Canyon was home to several tribes who treated it then and still today with reverence.

Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Hovenweep and numerous other national parks are sacred ancestral homeland and part of the culture and identity of the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, the Hopis in Arizona and some Navajo communities. Many have played a crucial role in protecting public land from reckless oil and gas development.

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Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah came out of a proposal from a coalition of tribal nations. Some of the most beautiful canyon country in the Southwest, which recreationists and adventurers have enjoyed for decades, is also ancestral land for these tribes. I attended a tribal meeting last year in Bluff, Utah, at the edge of Bears Ears. One member said, “We haven’t met here in over 700 years.”

COVID-19 devastated tourism, economy

The qualities of these landscapes that made them worthy of protection would not exist without the centuries of stewardship by the original indigenous inhabitants. And we could not protect places like Grand Canyon, Chaco Canyon and other national parks without the collaboration with tribal allies.

In addition to high infection rates, tribal communities in the region are feeling a second blow as the numbers of visitors to the Southwest’s national parks dwindles. In communities that are poorer even in normal times, this will mean fewer tourists spending money and fewer jobs for tribal members.

Despite this, many tribes have asked travelers to postpone their trips to Southwest Indian country while their communities continue to grapple with the pandemic by enforcing isolation measures, curfews and even roadblocks in some areas, prioritizing human health over local economies.

Want to help? Contribute to relief funds

Tribal communities have been stewards of these destinations for hundreds of years. Visitors can postpone their trips safe in the knowledge that these parks will still be around long after the pandemic.

Tribes have done so much to protect the parks and lands that we care about. The least we can do is give a little something back. There are numerous relief funds accepting donations if you do find yourself postponing a trip this summer, or if you just want to help a community in this time of need: 

Ernie Atencio is the southwest regional director for National Parks Conservation Association. Reach him at eatencio@npca.org.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Tribes are suffering 2 blows from COVID-19. Here's how you can help ... from afar

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