Transcript: Jonathan Nez on "Face the Nation," April 4, 2021

Navajo Nation president says pandemic exposed health care disparities
Navajo Nation president says pandemic exposed... 07:31

The following is a transcript of an interview with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez that aired Sunday, April 4, 2021, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: Native American communities have seen the highest rates of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths of any racial or ethnic group in this country. Jonathan Nez is president of the Navajo Nation, which considers itself the largest tribe by land and population and spans northeast Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. Good morning to you.

NAVAJO NATION PRESIDENT JONATHAN NEZ: Good morning, MARGARET, and happy Easter and happy Resurrection Sunday to all your viewers,

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you for that. Why have indigenous people been hit so hard by COVID?

PRESIDENT NEZ: Well, MARGARET, I think this pandemic here has revealed some of the deficiencies in all of our health care systems throughout the country, more so in Native American communities. Four hundred over 500 tribes throughout the country have been working hard to push back on this virus. And as many viewers may know, that the- the Indian Health Service oversees the health care system and the Indian Health Service has been underfunded since its inception. And so we are- the health care professionals are utilizing the limited resources that they have, but they have been doing an outstanding job. And I want to say thank you to our health care workers here on the Navajo Nation, our frontline warriors, Indian Health Services and the Navajo Nation employees for doing an outstanding work pushing back on the virus and as well as bringing confidence to the vaccine.

MARGARET BRENNAN: At the middle of last year, the Navajo Nation had a higher infection rate than any single state in the US. But you are saying you are, it seems, having some success with distributing the vaccine. How have you persuaded your community to take it?

PRESIDENT NEZ: Well, right now, the Indian Health Service, the Navajo area here has received 200- I'm sorry, 246,000 plus doses. And of those 219,661 have gone into the arms of our Navajo people. That's 89.3% of what was given to the Nation are given to the Navajo people, 88,889 of our Navajo people are fully vaccinated. And I again just want to say thank you to our health care professionals. And we've been having town hall meetings. As you may know, we had Dr. Fauci on our town hall meeting, Dr. Bourla from Pfizer, and just answering the Navajo people's questions about the virus and also our leaders taking the vaccine on television. I think just because of how hard hit the Navajo peop- Navajo Nation was, we've seen a big increase in participation in taking the vaccine.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.

PRESIDENT NEZ: So I really commend the people that have been fighting and pushing back on this virus. As you may know, MARGARET, 30 to 40% of our Navajo people don't have running water here in the most powerful country in the world. And that has contributed to the high cases early on. But, you know, with the help of- of everyone, including our congressional delegation,-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.

PRESIDENT NEZ: --our leaders, you know, educating them, you know, they have been forthcoming with resources. And we see that in the American Rescue Plan Act that has been recently approved.

MARGARET BRENNAN: That- I just want to underscore that because it was a shocking statistic when your communications director told us that 30 to 40% of your people do not have running water. Do you have assurances on how the money will be spent, this federal aid that you're talking about? And, added to that, the Biden administration still doesn't have an appointed head of the Indian Health Services. So why are you so confident these things are going to be addressed?

PRESIDENT NEZ: Well, the acting director right now, Elizabeth Fowler, has been working directly with Navajo Nation, as well as we've been working straight with the White House. We have- finally have a seat at the table here in getting our information and our advocacy addressed. And it's really, you know, with the funds that are coming to the citizens of this country in terms of recovery and rescue, this- this time around, it's finally helping our nation grow. And it's all about nation building here in indigenous communities throughout the country and really focusing on self-determination. You know, our economy has been hit hard because we were able to implement some very strict protocols. We had lockdowns. We have a mask mandate which helped- which- hurt our economy. But we are moving out of that high cases. And just a couple of weeks ago is the first time ever in six months we had zero cases and zero deaths in 24 hours. So I commend the Navajo people for listening to the health care professionals and their leaders. And I wish that other jurisdictions throughout the country would do the same.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mhm. The CDC says Native Americans are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, have a greater prevalence of obesity and alcoholism, and are more likely to be smokers. All of these things are a recipe for susceptibility to COVID-19. What are you doing to promote a healthy- healthier life- lifestyle?

PRESIDENT NEZ: Well, in indigenous communities, we are returning back to a lot of our teaching. If you look through our world lens, our world view, you know, a lot of our teaching can really push back on these health issues. Some of these- we call them monsters here on the Navajo Nation, these modern-day monsters, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide. And we are really encouraging our- our Navajo citizens to return to some of our teachings,--

MARGARET BREENNAN: Mhm.

PRESIDENT NEZ: --our way of life teachings, so that we could be able to push back. And I think that is one of the big reasons on the Navajo Nation we were able to push back on this virus. It wasn't about restricting people's freedoms when we told people to wear a mask or to stay home. It was looking at the greater good and the greater good here was to protect your family, protect your community. And I think because of that, we were able to let our people know that we will get through this pandemic just as we have gone through some very tough times in our history. And all indigenous peoples, I guess all five-finger beings have some difficult times in their history and more so in Native American communities. But I just want to highlight, MARGARET, that indigenous peoples throughout the country are very resilient, even though sometimes the federal government is slow to react in the Indian country. But we didn't roll over. We didn't give up. We fought hard,--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah. 

PRESIDENT NEZ: --and I commend the Navajo citizens for doing their best to push back the virus

MARGARET BRENNAN: All right. Present Nez, good luck. Thank you for your time this morning. 

PRESIDENT NEZ: Thank you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll be back in a moment.