Spontaneity helped me link COVID to decades of environmental injustice in Navajo communities

Published on
November 7, 2022

Hours off schedule and hundreds of miles away from my next meeting, I hit traffic.

On the Navajo reservation’s horizonless and breathtaking one-lane highway, traffic carries meaning. On the one hand, it could signal a long-awaited event: a community gathering at a local chapter house, say, or a hardwood clash between two rival high school basketball teams. On the other, it could symbolize something much more sinister: a medical emergency, or a car accident.

In this case, the line of cars was backed up before a head-on collision. The collision had taken place on a stretch of road where construction consumed the other lane. There was no shoulder. There was no rest lane. There were no exits or shortcuts. There was also, let the record show, no cell service.

There was, however, the cloud of dust emanating from the caravan trekking through a distant dirt road that appeared to loop around the site of the accident. It was either that or turn back 60 miles to take a circuitous route that would add enough time to the journey that I’d miss the meeting anyway. Hey, I thought to myself, what’s the worst that can happen?

Famous last words. Within seconds on the dirt road, my cute little Nissan rental bleeped out a low tire pressure warning. Some 80 miles later on the highway, my back tire blew so bad that I drove back to town on a hubcap.

Suffice it to say, I missed the meeting.

But the laughs and subsequent rapport that later came out of the white man’s — the bilagaana’s — misadventures on Navajo land probably did more for my reporting than anything else.

There’s a long history of extraction from Indigenous peoples. Minerals. Rugs. Labor. Stories, too. So, as I undertook this investigation, I knew two things. 

One, that I’d need people to trust me so much that they’d walk me through the hills in which they grew up, talk me through the stories their families passed down through the generations, and revisit the injustice, oppression, and trauma that many had tried to forget in order to simply go on living. 

Two, that I looked like many of the perpetrators who’d lied, cheated, stolen, and committed violence upon this country’s First Peoples.

My first strategy for confronting this legacy was simple, if blunt: I knew I’d have to call it out. Within minutes of starting each conversation with a potential source, I acknowledged how I look. They knew it. I knew it. But it took saying.

My second strategy was a bit more lighthearted. Fairly quickly, I learned that humor commands an important kind of social currency in the communities I was engaging with. And, it seemed to me, a particular kind of humor — what the Brits call “taking the piss”, or what Staten Islanders call “busting chops.” Fortunately, as a Jew from New York, I felt exquisitely well trained in the sister arts of chumming and self-deprecation. One joke at a time, my sources and I found a shared humanity. “A Jewish guy from New York gets stranded on the side of a desert road” made tantalizing fodder.

My third strategy also gets back to that car accident. During my time on the reservation (and likewise on the Laguna and Acoma pueblos), I discovered how sacred the invitation to meet someone somewhere at some time was. 

On land where each millimeter is sacred, bringing in an outsider is a profound act of hospitality. It’s a deep honor, too. So being a good guest meant not only coming, but staying. It meant not only showing up, but being present. It meant listening until the stories were done. And it meant being game for wherever the day went. That’s where spontaneity came in.

Many of my reporting mentors say that the best reporting happens when you least expect it. On this story more than any other I’ve worked on, that dictum held true. Loretta, who helped anchor the story, was the friend of a source who was recommended by another source who I’d met in a diner on Route 66. Bob, another key figure in the piece, was the client of a home health worker who’d seen a flyer I’d sent to a chapter house. Edison, who is introduced later in the piece and exemplifies an especially thorny loophole in regulations meant to protect those exposed to uranium, was the same home health worker’s dad.

But those relationships could not have been built without saying yes to someone, somewhere, at some point in time, in a way that was invariably unexpected.

That’s how I learned another formative lesson, this time about trust. It’s a reporter’s job to build trust, yes. But trust isn’t unidirectional. We, as reporters, also have to trust that our sources will tell us the versions of the story we really should be reporting. That takes more than five minutes at the close of an interview for an unsolicited sound-off that we know internally we’re going to cut anyway. It may take rescheduling a meeting, or a whole day. 

In other words, we’re storytellers, but we’re listeners first. We’re witnesses, but we’re guests first. Especially in cases where relationships with media are fraught, we must be the best guests we can. That means being fully open to a culture and place; to saying yes to things that overwhelm our calendars; to treating sources not just as sound bites but as fountains of lived experience from whom spontaneity and insights spring. 

It means being truly present to the life and times of the people you’re encountering. 

Even when your own life and times take you off road.