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Children of the Earth

Published Oct. 9, 2005

The Gods are closer in the morning.

Peggy Scott, the descendant of healers, steps outside while the world is asleep. She sprinkles sacred cornmeal on the wind and prays to Mother Earth, like her grandfather taught when she was a child. "This is my granddaughter, Mother Earth," the old man had said. "You will know her by the sound of her feet."

She believes Mother Earth still knows her, even though she holds a master's degree and drives a Pontiac. She believes the cornmeal is accepted by her God, not just tossed in the dirt. But as she prays for harmony, the most precious thing, she senses a great rip, a disruption. Her ancestors sensed it in times of massacre, famine and disease.

It happens when death comes for the Children of the Earth.

Doctors at the national Centers for Disease Control tentatively have identified the killer as a hantavirus, a flu-like disease carried by rodents. Sixteen people have died in and around the Navajo Nation in four months.

Nine were Navajo, the most recent a 22-year-old woman who felt tired on Monday and died on Wednesday, fevered, choking for air as her lungs filled with fluid. Doctors still do not know enough about it to diagnose it early. There are still too many questions, and science is slow.

In a place where the people do not speak about the dead, it moves slower. Modern medicine has collided with old faiths, where the thunder of helicopter blades mixes with drumbeats, and an autopsy is seen as an avenue for the dead to return to earth. This has done more than kill them. It has torn their harmony and awakened prejudice in people waiting for an excuse to hate.

The Navajo, their language and culture hammered by 100 years of Bureau of Indian Affairs doctrine, their religion stolen by missionaries, wonder if it is punishment.

"We have strayed away from who we were," said Selena Manychildren, who broadcasts in both Navajo and English at radio station KTNN in Window Rock, Ariz. "The elders are saying that is why the disease is not afraid to come among us."

It has come among them with frightening speed. It has attacked the young and healthy instead of the old and weak. It is possible it has always been here, misdiagnosed as other things. But in a nation where ships of rock sail over desert and where winds carve windows in the mountains, it is not hard to believe in vengeful Gods.

Peggy Scott, a high school teacher and expert on Navajo culture, is a bridge between the old and new. When the Navajo talk about spirits, she says, it is not ignorance and superstition. It is only faith, as fervent as anyone who has ever knelt before a cross.

"When most people talk about the end of the world, they talk of an atomic bomb or the coming of Christ," Scott said. "For us it means an end of an era, an end to a way of life. In our history, that time has always been marked by something tragic.

"Something mysterious."

Some Navajo will wait for people in white coats to find the answers in microscopes. Others will look for an answer in fire, and in the sky.

"Indeed, I am its child. Absolutely, I am a child of the earth."

a Navajo song of creation


The roads only seem to go on forever.

They are mostly narrow, mostly straight and mostly dirt, but they all end someplace, though that is often no place in particular.

Tribal police habitually stop drivers doing 95 mph on Route 666; because even 100 feels like a crawl in a Cadillac if a road has no foreseeable conclusion.

This is the place researchers came to when evidence of the new plague drifted from The Nation a month ago: a reservation spanning three states _ Arizona, New Mexico and Utah; 17-million acres; 200,000 people scattered across an otherworld landscape of canyon, deserts and mesas the color of strawberry ice cream.

The Navajo still live in small houses and hogans, their traditional homes, many without running water, electricity or telephones. They haul water 20 miles or more in the back of trucks, and joke that while a Navajo groom used to bring his saddle into his wife's hogan as a sign of matrimony, now it's a seat from his Chevrolet.

There are few road signs. "Go to the big rock, go behind it, turn right at the next big rock," said one woman, giving directions. "Then ask somebody."

This isolation was fatal for 22-year-old Brenda Benally. She called an ambulance and made it to the hospital _ just in time to die. More than half of the people infected have died.

There is no certain cure, but patients have been saved when treated with the experimental anti-viral drug ribavirin within four days of infection. The problem is that no one is sure how long the incubation takes.

Infection apparently comes from breathing airborne particles of urine, feces or saliva from infected rats. Navajo, who work with cattle, horses and sheep, are exposed.

"We are used to seeing elderly chronic patients," said nurse Kathy Garcia, who worked in the isolation unit set up for the virus at the University of New Mexico Medical Center. "We're not used to seeing this dying and suffering from people so young."

One person with the disease will walk out in a few days, while the one in the next bed will die.

"I just want it to end, for things to go back to the way they were," said Cheryl Duran, another nurse. "I dream about it."

The virus, named for the Hantaan River in Korea where it was discovered, infected thousands of soldiers during the Korean War in the 1950s. This is the first known outbreak in this country, though investigators believe it has been around for years.

The first case in this outbreak surfaced in March, but doctors did not make a connection until May, when a man and woman about to marry died within days of each other. The CDC sent Joseph McDade, who discovered the cause of Legionnaire's disease.

CDC researchers had their first clue when they found antibody proteins directed against the virus in the blood of three survivors of the illness, called acute respiratory distress syndrome. The patients began generating antibodies after getting ill, an indication the immune system was fighting the virus. Similar antibodies were found in autopsies.

That left the question: Why now?

The Navajo did not need a laboratory for that. The winter was wetter than usual, and more rain means more food, which means more rodents. Though the disease only can be passed from rodents to people, the Navajo may have spread it among themselves when they raided the nests of mice and rats for pinon nuts, which the Navajo roast like peanuts. The rodents carry the nuts in their mouths to line the nest.

The deaths should slow as the rodent population is controlled, but no one is sure. Dr. Frederick Koster, a professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico, said doctors are still wrestling with the scope of the illness, the incubation period and more.

The science of the disease is matter-of-fact, a pure detective story. More than a dozen laboratories concentrated on the microbe, until the answers were found.

But the healers and chanters have one more question for them:

How do they explain the missing star?

The open door

Bilagaana, The White Man, has a saying for it.

Rest in peace.

The Navajo do not talk about the dead, touch the dead and never, ever violate the bodies of the dead with knives.

The people here wonder how a conclusion to all this suffering can come as long as the doctors violate thousand-year-old laws.

It is not just a few old men who feel this way. Even younger Navajo, like Marvin Boyd, stare at the ground when asked about somebody who died from the disease. He raises his eyes only when the conversation moves on, to the living.

But to track down the disease, researchers probed into the lives of the dead. "They asked, "Where did he go, what did he eat, what did he do?,' " Selena Manychildren said. To the Navajo it is like fingers scraping across a blackboard.

"If the departed spirit looks back and sees that people are talking about him, he will say, "They are happy that I am gone. I will go back and take that person with me,' " Peggy Scott said.

The Navajo take four days to honor, mourn and bury the dead. Then they wash their hair with yucca soap and move on with their lives. But if that corpse is violated, especially in those four days, it is an invitation to disaster. That opens the door to the spirit world, and the chindi, spirits of the dead, cross over.

"If the Earth Surface People do not respect the body, if they do the unnatural, the spirits will take revenge," Scott said.

The Navajo tribal leaders have authority to order an autopsy over the objection of relatives, autopsies that doctors consider essential to finding answers.

The Navajo see it as angering an already angry God. Mother Earth and the Heavenly Fathers sent signs to warn the people, but only a few people _ ones close to the earth _ recognized them, Scott said.

There is a missing star, one of the worst signs of bad luck. The Navajo know the night sky. They have painted it with sand during holy ceremonies since the Air-Spirit People first located a crack in the hard shell of the sky and found their way to this world.

Then there was an eclipse. Then there was an earthquake in the Grand Canyon that echoed through the Black Mesa on the reservation.

The mesa moaned, as if in pain.

The drum

For as long as anyone can remember, the Navajo in danger have surrounded themselves with song.

First Man did it when he climbed the mountain to see why it was covered by a dark cloud. The Navajo in Canyon De Chelly did it in 1864, as soldiers came to kill them.

Last week, an old man in a Window Rock parking lot sat in his pickup and pounded the steering wheel in time to a Navajo song on the radio. He says he is a little afraid when his ears are empty.

Outside station KTNN in Window Rock, the Navajo capital, a traditional singing brings 100 people to chant and tap their toes in the dust. Mothers squeeze babies as eight men hammer the washtub-sized drum for three hours, chasing the badness from this circle of light.

During one song a military jet screams overhead and the men begin to pound louder and louder until the roar of the engines has gone. One of them guides the hand of his 4-year-old son on the stick, like a father in another culture would sit his son on his lap and let him steer the Buick.

"It heals," said Paul Bemora later, holding Paul Jr. by the hand to keep him from running out in front of cars.

Some Navajo are trying to keep their culture alive, but elders throughout The Nation say it is too late. The Gods are angry because their children have forgotten how to be Navajo, because they polluted lands sacred for a million years, because they listened to yelling Bible-pounders and started to walk the Jesus Way.

"We dropped bombs on our land, poison our food (pesticides), tenderize our steak," said Earnest Becenti, medicine man and county commissioner. "Our stomachs are tenderized. Our stomachs are not strong anymore. We're not strong anymore.

"I pray to Mother Earth, to Sun, Mountain, Water. I talk to them. . . . They tell me we have made some mistakes."

Peggy Scott and her husband Eddie, the assistant principal at Chinle High School, work to keep Indian culture alive in the classroom. Eddie is a Hopi, and he has seen the slow erosion of tradition and religion in his own people. The Hopi, whose reservation is surrounded by Navajo land, have been spared the disease.

The Scotts are products of a generation that went through a cultural meat-grinder in white-run schools. Mostly, they survived without the historical amnesia that afflicts so many of their generation.

Some things were lost. Somewhere, in the push to assimilate, her mother forgot Peggy Scott's Navajo name.

"We have arrived at a time where we have to stop, look at ourselves, our environment and our children," Peggy Scott said. "Many of our children don't even know how to pray."

Now, in reservation schools, along with math and science, they teach Navajo.

Eddie Scott says the religion of the Southwestern Indian is based on more than folklore. Much of it is common sense.

When he was a boy, the people selected their firewood with care. They only used trees that had lived long and healthy lives, trees about to die from old age. It was out of respect, but it also prevented them from taking trees back to their homes that were diseased, or that had been a nest for rodents.

The gathering of diseased firewood is one of the ways investigators believe the virus is contracted.

"We forgot how to live," he said.


The good thing that might come from the epidemic is that the Navajo will try and remember who they are, who they were.

One of the side-effects has been prejudice. The disease has given people an excuse to discriminate, even though whites and Hispanics have been stricken with the disease, even though it has killed people outside the Navajo reservation land.

In California, a grade school canceled a visit of students from a Navajo school because they were afraid their students would catch the disease. In Utah, a college asked the Navajo for a letter stating that a prospective student did not have the disease.

Not one person has caught the disease from another person.

On Wednesday, California health officials reported five cases of what could be the same illness in Northern California, including two cases that were fatal. Researchers expect there to be more reported cases, because it is no longer the mystery illness. It has a name.

But people still call it the Navajo disease in Gallup, Phoenix, Santa Fe, other places.

"My friends went to Phoenix to eat in a restaurant, and the waiter wouldn't put the plates in the same sink as the other people," Selena Manychildren said.

Peggy Scott will continue to pray. More Navajos are praying with her now, people who say they haven't prayed in years.

They walk out in early morning, when the world is asleep, and hope Mother Earth remembers the sound of their feet.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.