By Mona Gable for STAT
Michelle Tom stared into the screen. The Navajo doctor had just finished a grueling shift at the Winslow Indian Health Care Center urgent care facility in Winslow, Ariz., caring for Covid-19 patients. Now, she was spending her Friday night speaking via livestream to Native American youth about the pandemic.
“I’ve seen it hit everyone,” she said of the coronavirus. “But I have the strength of my ancestors, the strength of my prayers, and the strength of all of you. We have to keep talking about it, especially to our young people.”
In recent weeks, similar messages have resounded across the Navajo Nation, as younger generations have come to play a pivotal grassroots role in the pandemic response. They have moved quickly for good reason. Navajo residents have been devastated as the virus has swept through a reservation that spans four states. Already, 4,633 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 153 have died as of May 23, a staggering toll in a population of 356,000 — and the highest infection rate of anywhere in the U.S.
Young Navajos are motivated, in large part, by a desire to protect their elders — many of whom have underlying health conditions and who are at high risk of Covid-19 — and the vital cultural knowledge they carry. Frustrated by the federal government’s slow response, and worried about their loved ones, they have mobilized to provide health information, assistance, and supplies so their elders can stay safe at home. Those efforts have been key as the Navajo Nation struggles to contain the pandemic across its vast lands.
“What’s sacred to us is our elders,” said Allie Young, a 30-year-old screenwriter who grew up in the Navajo Nation outside Shiprock, N.M. “And tied to our elders are our language and our traditional practices, stories and culture. With this virus, there’s a threat to that. Because when our elders are dying, that knowledge goes with them that we’re still learning.”
The virus has proven particularly difficult to combat on the reservation, where many families live in multigenerational households that make social distancing and quarantining harder. Those challenges were compounded by the weekslong wait for federal aid from the CARES Act to arrive as the pandemic raged. Young Navajos, sensing that help could not wait, are now leading a variety of response efforts, from donation drives to deliver much-needed water and food, to social media campaigns to reach isolated residents, to recruiting medical volunteers to staff clinics.
Young — who recently moved from Los Angeles back to Shiprock to be with family — knew it was critical to communicate with elders as the deadly virus spread. She also knew that would be difficult, given that some residents lack internet access and even electricity. So she created a social media campaign called Protect the Sacred that instead targets tech-savvy young people, in the hope they’d bring accurate information about the virus to their own loved ones.
Since launching in late March, Protect the Sacred has held three livestreams featuring Navajo health care professionals like Tom, political leaders, and celebrity allies such as actor Mark Ruffalo and filmmaker Taika Waititi. The celebrities draw young people in — but public health officials have been able to use the panels as a way to dispense advice and beg young people to stay home.
“Even as young as you are, you can be a transmitter if you’re not careful. It’s up to you to protect yourself, your community, and your elders,” Jill Jim, executive director of the Navajo Nation Department of Health, warned Navajo youth during one of the sessions.
Building on the success of Protect the Sacred, Young and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez recently rolled out another campaign, #NavajoStrong, to collect financial donations and recruit badly needed medical professionals. Before a 57-hour curfew locked down the reservation recently, Young, Nez, and a caravan of volunteers — including chef Jose Andres and actor Sean Penn — donned masks, bright green vests, and gloves to deliver supplies to more than 500 families.
Like Young, Kyle Jim, a 32-year-old Shiprock resident who works with nonprofits, realized the hardships his people faced early on. As the virus hit, he grew deeply concerned after seeing his neighbors flood the town’s only grocery store. Although he knew the tribal government was providing some aid to communities, he knew many families were falling through the cracks. The reservation also relies on emergency assistance from 110 local chapter houses, which were closed due to the virus. He feared some residents — especially those without transportation — would struggle to get food or other essentials.
So Jim and his 24-year-old sister, Bree Lameman, who returned home from the University of Arizona when the pandemic hit, launched the “Northern Dine Covid-19 Relief Effort.” They quickly rallied young community leaders, organizers, and volunteers to help identify what families needed and to solicit donations, from baby supplies and cleaning products to fresh produce and water. In the 10 weeks since they began, they’ve assisted more than 600 families.
As they’ve traveled across the reservation over the last two months, they’ve found that there’s also a need to resolve confusion about Covid-19. “A lot of people don’t know what the coronavirus is,” Lameman said. “They think it’s a simple cough or flu you get over.”
The grassroots relief efforts among young Navajos have also stretched to those living afar. Miranda Beyale, who works in a fifth grade classroom in Rio Rancho, N.M., watched in alarm as the virus began sweeping through her homeland. After Beyale and her siblings moved their 62-year-old mother from Shiprock into Beyale’s one-bedroom apartment to keep her safe, Beyale and a colleague who is also Navajo decided they needed to do more.
“We felt a sense of obligation to put our young minds into action,” said Beyale, who is 32.
After starting a relief drive through their school’s parent-teacher association, they were swamped with precious supplies like hand sanitizer, wipes, shampoo, books, toys, and school supplies. They then put together care packages, which were delivered to dozens of families around Shiprock. They even received a donation of dozens of boxes of Girl Scout cookies for nurses on the frontline, each tagged with an inspirational message.
Beyale’s brother, Graham Beyale, helped ferry the boxes to the Northern Navajo Medical Center. Graham, like so many other young people, has looked for ways to protect not only his community, but also his own family. Before the virus struck the reservation, Graham was living with some cousins and their elderly parents. He quickly moved out and into a tent on some farmland he is cultivating with friends to grow crops.
But like countless Navajo families affected by the pandemic, the Beyale siblings have not been spared. Their father collapsed on Mother’s Day after being infected with the virus. He remains hospitalized and on a ventilator, his family unable to visit.
For the Beyales and many others in their generation, the intensely personal nature of the crisis has become a call to action. That’s been true as well for Heather Tanana, a 37-year-old lawyer who lives in Salt Lake City. She felt helpless watching the virus tear through her birthplace — and threaten her own family. Her 73-year-old father, a Navajo physician, works at an Indian Health Services clinic in Monument Valley and is one of the few doctors who speak Navajo.
One of eight children from a large extended family, Tanana has also had loved ones fall to Covid-19. “Every time we lose one of my dad’s siblings, one of our elders, it is really disheartening,” she said.
Tanana and some colleagues who volunteer on the Indian Child Welfare Act committee were talking about how to help the community when they came up with a plan. After reaching out to her network, and local health and social service agencies, she launched Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief, or UTCR.
“All of us have full-time jobs, but we are either personally or professionally connected to tribal communities,” she said of her 11 partners. “A good portion of us are Native members who are worried about our families on the reservation.”
The group posted a long wish list online for donations — cloth masks, diapers, thermometers, bottled water, and more — and also asked for financial contributions. The response was more than Tanana even envisioned. They collected enough supplies to fill two large trucks and raised more than $15,000.
But the success has been bittersweet. Just two weeks ago, Tanana’s 76-year-old grandmother died in a nursing home near Gallup, N.M., of Covid-19. The day she found out, one of her partners sent her a photo of the logo for a new relief drive for the Navajo Nation. “In a time of darkness, it made me feel joy that people would do that for individuals they don’t know,” she said.
Initially, Tanana’s project was going to last two weeks. But because of the halting response from the government, and the ongoing uncertainty about the pandemic, she and her partners are considering whether to continue their work. “Everyone expects the need to be there,” she said.
“There’s a lot of attention now, but what about in the fall?”