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How We Treat Our Greatest Tribe

Oliver La Fargo, foremost authority on the American Indian, says that “our greatest tribe, the 60,000 Navajos, is locked by illiteracy and endemic disease into a desert reservation which can hardly support half that number.” Their condition is so grave that Congress is now “considering” a program to help them.

Meanwhile the Navajos continue to suffer. A young nurse, writing under the pseudonym of Susan Roberts, has given the NewRepublic the following impressions based on several months’ duty at a Navajo reservation hospital.


Navajo Indian kids are cute as a button. It’s terrible that so many of them die. In August and September, New Mexico’s hottest months, cur hospital has a whole isolation ward filled with babies critically ill with diarrhea. The children just stare up from their beds until they drop off. In especially bad times, we lose a baby almost every day.

Fort Defiance, the Office of Indian Affairs hospital where I worked, is on a Navajo reservation 31 miles from Gallup, New Mexico. It is a new three-story brick building with good equipment. But even with several other small hospitals on the reservation, there aren’t enough beds for the patients. The tuberculosis sanitarium across the street from Fort Defiance is always full. We have a mobile X-ray unit that goes around the reservation, but it doesn’t do much good to check the Navajos if you have no place to put them.

It would be easier if the Indians could read and speak English, but most of them haven’t an idea of what it's all about. You can imagine how hard it is to get them to understand disease prevention. They don’t even know what a germ is.

The children grow pale and lose weight until they begin to cough and spit up blood. Then the parents bring them to the hospital. I remember a seven-year-old boy who was semi-comatose and almost completely dehydrated. We couldn't do anything for him. When his father brought him, he told us the boy's brother had died two months before. The father had never heard of contagion.

The Navajos have their own strange ways of treating sickness. Sometimes they hold a “sing,” make sand paintings, dance, and manufacture all kinds of weird noises. Outsiders aren't allowed. If the medicine magic doesn’t work, then the Navajos come to us. We aren’t so secretive about our methods. When we operate, very often we allow the patient’s family in the operating room amphitheatre to watch. It gives us a strange feeling to look up and see a dozen or so Indians huddled in the back rows, with their sombreros and bright shawls, gazing quietly down at us.

I like the Navajos. They’re quiet, shy people who never complain even when they are desperately sick, and they seem so grateful for the little they get from the hospital. It’s true that they’re not the most cleanly people in the world, but after you’ve seen how far they have to go to haul water you understand why they save it for cooking and drinking.

The ones I know work hard, the way any people do who have a rough time keeping alive on their land. Generally they raise small herds of cattle or sheep, but the land isn’t very good and there is not enough rain to grow much grass. The government ought to help them irrigate their land or give them industrial training so a few more could get work off the reservation.

The Navajos certainly must have more schools. How can we keep them well if they can’t even understand us? One old Indian signed out of a tuberculosis sanitarium a few miles from Defiance because, he said, he didn’t know why he’d been sent there, what was the matter with him, or what the people were trying to do. I don’t blame him.

With children it’s different; they don’t have to know. They just arrive in the ambulance, and we take off their rags and scrub them clean. It’s an awfully funny feeling to check their clothes. You can’t figure out what to put down. So finally you just write “one colored rag,” or “piece of black calico.”

There’s such a change in the children when they've been with us for a while, if they’re not too sick. Their eyes brighten and we can even make their hair curl—something I never knew was possible with an Indian baby. And then, when they’re well again, we take off their white hospital things and put the rags back on and send them on their way.

When a baby dies, however, the mother and father, no matter how poor they are, usually bring new clothes, and we dress the child in a silk dress or a knitted sweater and new shoes. Then the hospital puts the baby in a small wooden box and buries it in an unmarked field.

I wish there were something more we could do.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.