WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ., JUNE 18 -- Regina Clauschee-Shebala is sick of hearing about "the Navajo flu."
As Native Americans, she said, her people have known many years of painful discrimination. Now she believes they are being blamed, and often shunned, for the mystery illness that has claimed at least 16 lives.
"There is a hysteria against the Navajo people," said Claushee-Shebala, 21, a student at New Mexico State University who led a small group of protesters here today in a "March of Justice." Window Rock is the capital of the Navajo Nation, the 17 million-acre federal reservation that includes parts of three states and is home to the nation's largest Native American tribe.
"In restaurants, people don't want to touch our plates when we are through eating," she said. "Our rodeo riders are being asked not to participate in rodeos outside the reservation. People read about rodent droppings and think we are dirty.
Researchers with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Thursday in the agency's weekly report that they believe the lowly deer mouse, a tiny rodent common to the Southwest, is responsible for the deadly respiratory ailment. They said 29 cases of the illness have been identified. Of those who died, nine were Navajos, living on or near the reservation.
Last week, CDC officials said a previously unknown "hantavirus," a group of viruses named for the Han River in South Korea, was responsible for the illness that begins with a cough and fever and often ends quickly in respiratory failure and death.
Scientists speculated that rodents carried the virus in the Navajo region and that contaminated dust could have been inhaled from the rodent droppings. Some traditional Navajo healers, such as Earnest Becenti of Gallup, N.M., have noted that there were massive amounts of pinon nuts this spring, a staple in the deer mouse diet, and thus an unusual abundance of rodents.
Because so much of the reservation is rural -- with deep, wind-carved canyons, red sandstone mesas and pastures covered in sagebrush -- it is home to many deer mice and other creatures, who often invade houses despite the best efforts to stop them. But not everyone believes the answer to the illness is quite so simple.
"If we take the federal government by the way they have treated the American Indian from day one, then they are probably withholding information," said Albert Tinhorn, 38, a tribal chapter president, or government leader, from Dennehotso, Ariz. Tinhorn took part in the march with his son, Tyler, 15.
"I find it hard to believe the mice theory," Tinhorn said. "I think if there's any truth to be found, it's got to be in the toxic wastes, all the radioactivity around here. The federal government's been doing secret testing of who knows what out here for years. Ten years from now, we'll hear there was a coverup."
Tinhorn agrees with tribal President Peterson Zah, who spoke in Washington Thursday, criticizing media coverage of the illness as a Navajo disease and offering examples of Navajos who have been treated poorly by outsiders.
"The teeth of racism by the media and others have been bared against the Indian people," Tinhorn said. "The Navajo people have been very tolerant. Three or four Anglos have died of this disease, whereas the diseases brought over by the European people years ago wiped out entire Indian populations."
There is one spot in the Navajo Nation where the media definitely are not welcome these days. As many as six people who contracted the disease, including two who died, came from the Littlewater chapter, a small settlement about 50 miles northeast of Gallup between Thoreau and Crown Point in New Mexico. It is an area of the reservation far from the tourist hotspots -- no Navajo rugs for sale, no Kachina dolls, no silver bracelets.
Littlewater is 10 miles down a bumpy, poorly graded road, past flocks of sheep, old mobile homes and hogans, traditional Navajo homes that are eight-sided structures with doors positioned to face the sunrise. Here and there along the road, large hand-printed signs are propped against fence posts: "No Media Allowed. No Newspaper, TV, Radio, Etc. This Means You."
Bennie Henrico, chapter president for the last 12 years, does not want to discuss the illnesses in his community anymore. Too much has been said already. "Our people, we do not like to talk about death," he said.