US election highlights divisions within Native American Navajo Nation

It’s just after noon at Window Rock on the Arizona-New Mexico border, and a small but vocal group of residents has gathered beneath the searing sun at the local fairground to meet John Pence.

The 31-year-old nephew and senior adviser to vice-president Mike Pence is on a whistle-stop tour through the south west, and is guest of honour at a Navajos for Trump event.

“There’s a movement that the president started, a movement to put America first, to fight for the people in every corner, in every community of this country. From Navajo Nation, to my home state of Indiana, and everywhere else in between. It’s a movement of everyday Americans, from every walk of life that just wants to put our interests and our people first,” he says to cheers.

The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the United States, and the most populous of the US’s 567 federally-recognised tribes.

The community came to national and international attention this year – not least in Ireland – when it was devastated by Covid-19. More than 10,000 people have tested positive for the virus while approximately 555 Navajo people have died from it – much higher than the national average.

While the death rates peaked in early summer, there has been a resurgence in cases, prompting the local government to impose a curfew last week.

Partnership

The plight of the Navajo people struck a chord with many, including in Ireland, as thousands of peoplecontributed money to help the community through a Go Fund Me page.

It was payback of sorts for a gift given more than 170 years ago by the Choctaw tribe. The native American community, then in the wake of the massive dislocation that pushed native Americans west past the Mississippi, sent $170 to Irish families struggling during the Famine.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Jonathan Nez, the president of the Navajo nation, expresses his gratitude. “We are profoundly grateful to Irish people, as well as other nations throughout the world, who helped us during this time of difficulty in May and June,” he says, describing how he first learned about Irish history and connections between the two peoples when the donations began to pour in.

The Native American community has caught the eye of both campaigns as the presidential election day approaches

“It’s a great example of a partnership between nations, of reaching out,” he said, noting t there are “much similarities” between the two peoples’ culture and history. But he also notes that his people needed the help of other countries as “the federal government fails us during these difficult times”.

The coronavirus pandemic has helped refocus attention on the plight of America’s indigenous communities, who were moved off their land during the 19th century and continue to advocate for fairer treatment from the federal government.