ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Navajo Nation already had its own police academy, universities, bar association and court system, plus a new Washington office near the embassies of other sovereign nations. And during the coronavirus pandemic the Diné, as many prefer to call themselves, gained an important distinction: the most populous tribal nation in the United States.
A rush to secure federal hardship benefits increased the Navajo Nation’s official enrollment to 399,494 from 306,268 last year, according to the Navajo Office of Vital Records and Identification. That jump was enough for the Diné to eclipse the Cherokee Nation, which has an enrollment of about 392,000.
The tribe’s growth, which came while it was enduring some of the nation’s most harrowing virus outbreaks, could affect the disbursement of future federal aid as well as political representation in the Southwest. The Navajo Nation reservation, which is larger than West Virginia, spreads over about 27,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
“This is the brighter side to a really bad time in the pandemic when we watched so many people go,” said Traci Morris, executive director of Arizona State University’s American Indian Policy Institute.
Morris, a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, said that while several tribes saw their enrollment increase during the pandemic, the 30% spike in the Navajo Nation was particularly notable. The Cherokee Nation, which normally sees about 1,200 applications for enrollment each month, has seen an increase to about 1,400 a month since the middle of last year, said a spokeswoman for the tribe.
Over the past year, thousands of Diné scrambled to update their enrollment information or to enroll officially for the first time to receive payments the tribe was directly distributing from its share of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Those payments of up to about $1,350 per adult helped many Diné weather a protracted period of economic instability.
The Navajo Nation has also outpaced much of the rest of the country in vaccinating its population; nearly 90% of those on the reservation who are eligible have received at least one shot.
At the same time, at least 1,297 citizens of the Navajo Nation have died from the virus. Residents have been particularly vulnerable because of a high prevalence of diseases like diabetes, the scarcity of running water for washing hands, and homes with several generations living under the same roof.