When Worlds Collide : Culture: The media and their questions about a fatal illness in the Southwest rattle the Navajo reservation. Its people don't believe in discussing the dead.


On the shoulder of the rutted dirt road that leads to Littlewater, a few hundred feet from where it branches off the main highway, someone has planted a large hand-painted sign.

It reads: "No News Media Allowed--TV, Radio, Etc."

Here on the wind-swept eastern edge of the Navajo reservation, state and federal health investigators, newspaper reporters and network camera crews have been knocking on doors at isolated homes asking questions.

They're seeking clues about the mysterious respiratory illness that has caused up to 16 deaths in the Four Corners region.

Although scientists believe the disease is caused by a newly identified strain of rodent-borne hantavirus, many questions remain about why the virus has struck now and why so many of its victims are young, healthy people.

But the "no media" signs sprouting around the reservation are a reminder of one certainty: Navajos are fed up with reporters and their questions. There are many reasons for their resentment, but one of the most important--and least understood by outsiders--is the aversion Navajos have to discussing the dead, particularly in the four days after death.

That reluctance is rooted in a sense of reverence, according to Harry Walters, who chairs the department of Dineh (Navajo) Studies at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Ariz.

Navajos believe all things are constituted of four elements: fire, earth, air and water, says Walters, an anthropologist. At the same time, he says, "There is a natural order where everything belongs. Everything has a prescribed role in this order."

Humans in particular must be aware of their proper role and take care not to upset the balance of nature.

The Navajos call it hozoho . "That means observing your role within the natural cycle," Walters says. "When you do that, you're in tune with everything."

Navajos refrain from talking about a dead person for four days for that person's sake. During that period, the body gradually reverts to its constituent elements.

"You observe strict reverence, because the process of returning to the elements will start smoothly," he says. "To talk about the deceased is to hold that back."

People may then grieve for up to 30 days (until the next new moon).

"After a month you hold your grieving to a minimum," Walters says. "To grieve too much isn't healthy."

Walters believes the dozens of journalists from magazines, newspapers and television stations roaming the 25,000-square-mile reservation were either unaware of or indifferent to the boundaries they were crossing.


The Navajos refer to their tribe as a nation, with its own culture and sphere of sovereignty. Their West Virginia-size reservation embraces northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and a small part of southeastern Utah. In some ways, a visit to Navajo Nation is like traveling to a country with a unique language and set of customs.

Although young people speak English and many have access to television, Navajos retain a sense of reserve that sets them apart from the rest of America, which has grown accustomed to people baring their souls to Oprah.

"When we have a disaster or a hurricane, they go out there and put the microphones in people's faces," Walters says. "This is not in Navajo culture."

Antipathy toward the news media has taken many forms.

Mourners angrily chased reporters and photographers from funerals for disease victims. Friends and relatives of the victims refused interviews and even threatened to withhold their cooperation from health officials if the barrage of reporters' questions did not cease.

Behind it all was a sense of intrusion.

"We live out here, and there isn't that bright spotlight," says Duane Beyal, spokesman for tribal president Peterson Zah. "So when it does show up, it's disconcerting. It's an affront to you and your privacy and family. It is a clash of cultures."

Early on, medical field investigators encountered a cultural barrier, in part because New Mexico health officials did not tell the tribe what was going on because they did not want to cause public alarm.

"You can't just go (on the reservation) and demand something," Beyal says. "You have to sit down and be patient and explain what you need. We could have helped tremendously with that effort."

Tribal officials are now working with state and federal health officials to learn more about the disease outbreak, Beyal says.


As if the invasion by outsiders weren't provocation enough, insensitive reporting and editing contributed to the tensions. Navajos everywhere were deeply insulted by headlines or TV commentary that offhandedly referred to the "Navajo flu" (San Francisco Chronicle) or the "Navajo illness" (Vancouver Sun).

"We really objected to that," Beyal says. "It's not a racial disease; it's regional."

In fact, although many cases occurred on or near the reservation, some have happened elsewhere in the Four Corners states of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. Several of the people who have died of the disease have been Anglo or Latino.

The fallout from implying that the illness is a uniquely Navajo problem has been considerable. Despite scientific assurances that the disease is not passed from person to person, some panicky non-Indians have curtailed their contacts with Navajos for fear of contagion.

In Southern California earlier this month, 27 Navajo third-graders from Chinle, Ariz., who were preparing to visit their pen pals at a private school in Northridge, were abruptly turned away as a precaution.

Benjamin Hale, a full-blood Navajo who was born and raised in Pico Rivera, says non-Indian friends were planning their first trip to the Navajo reservation this summer but changed their plans when they learned of the outbreak.

"They were frightened," Hale says. "They were really looking forward to it, but they were scared of that illness, so they canceled their trip."

Hale, 35, who spent most of his childhood summers with his grandparents on the reservation, resents what he sees as negative news coverage.

"I feel that all the accusations and the assumptions that are being made and broadcast on the news are really hurting the reservation economically," he says, reading darker motives into the news coverage.

"As soon as American Indians become self-sufficient, somebody tries to drag them down," he says. "I'm a conspiracy theorist . . ; as an American Indian looking back on the history of our people, I have a right to be one."

One reporter, who has covered many stories on the reservation, finds some validity in the Navajo criticism.

"The Navajos, to my way of thinking, have some legitimate complaints, because a lot of the media barged onto the reservation," says Fritz Thompson, a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal.

"They had no feel for the story from the Navajos' point of view. It was like, 'Indians be damned--we're going to get the story.' "

At the same time, Thompson, who was physically escorted from the funeral of a 13-year-old Navajo girl in Gallup and ordered away from another funeral in Sandspring, N.M., says Navajos also vented their anger at reporters who tried their best not to offend.

"I've been doing this a long time," says Thompson, 54. "It's one of the hardest stories I ever covered, but it wasn't anybody's fault, really."

Even if reporters are on their best behavior, Navajos are apt to disapprove of the news-gathering process itself, which often involves asking detailed personal questions.

In Littlewater, a small settlement a few miles east of the administrative and business center of Crownpoint, media scrutiny has been especially intense because it was home to a young couple whose deaths within five days of one another first drew the attention of health authorities in mid-May. Then, a 22-year-old Farmington, N.M., woman died after visiting relatives in Littlewater.

Health workers circulated through the community with questionnaires designed to track where people had traveled, what they'd eaten and with whom they had associated. A plague of reporters descended soon afterward, and family members told health officials that they would no longer cooperate unless the news media left them alone.

Given the conflicting values of journalists and Navajos, was a clash inevitable?

Says Thompson, "If you have a spectrum and put the Navajo culture at one end and the news media at the other, there's no way you can put those two together. It's like a real bad marriage."

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