Cronkite NewsNavajos in remote towns like tiny Leupp to the president of the tribal nation, the mission has been clear: Protect the elders.
Defend Our CommunityWhen the pandemic first hit the U.S., Leupp, about an hour’s drive east of Flagstaff, was not a hotspot for infection. But working at Sam’s Club in Flagstaff, Monica Harvey, 37, noticed firsthand how difficult it had become to get essential goods such as toilet paper and food. Harvey grew concerned for the elders in the Leupp area who, like many of the 174,000 who live on the reservation, often have to travel long distances for supplies and haul their own water to cook, bathe and wash their hands. Harvey founded Defend Our Community, a grassroots group delivering supplies to elders in need. The organization’s volunteers have helped more than 100 elders and developed countless relationships that will stay with them forever.
Laura Schad, a member of South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and program information coordinator for Partnership With Native Americans, said in an email that these obstacles may make it more difficult to follow safety guidelines related to the pandemic. “Many elders live in multigenerational households, challenging social distancing recommendations,” Schad said. “Some elders, especially Navajo, live independently in traditional homes. Those lack running water and common utilities … and this, again, complicates the CDC recommendations of frequent hand-washing.” In part because of these income and health disparities, COVID-19 has hit Native American communities hard. As of Aug. 11, the Navajo Department of Health had reported more than 9,000 cases and more than 470 deaths on the Navajo Nation Reservation. President Jonathan Nez has been urging Navajos to come together to take care of elders during the pandemic. “I challenge the Navajo people: Let’s protect them by staying home,” he said during a virtual town hall on June 9. “It’s our responsibility as family members. … I’ve seen some elders, tears running down their face, saying, ‘My kids don’t visit me.’” The sentiment was echoed by Vice President Myron Lizer, who said that supporting elders during the pandemic and well beyond is beneficial for all. “Love for our elders means we all win,” he said.
Defend Our Community helper Eija Jensen unloads care packages at a Navajo elder’s home. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has been urging tribal members to come together to take care of elders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Defend Our Community
Looking out for familyThe leaders of Defend Our Community have been both heartened and haunted by the elders they’ve met. During one delivery, Whitehair and Slowtalker approached a trailer home and called out for the man who lived there but got no answer. They found him lying on the ground between some cinder blocks. Because diabetic ulcers had destroyed the feeling in his feet, the elder had stumbled and couldn’t get up on his own. Whitehair and Slowtalker got him out of the 102 degree heat, then called his relatives to see whether someone could check on him after they’d left. No one called back. “It turned up more of an angry side,” Slowtalker recalled. “How can we treat our elders like this? All of these things are running through my head like why, why, why, why, and I didn’t have the answers.” Members of Defend Our Community, along with some other elders, have taken to keeping watch on the man. Not all trips are met with sadness. Other deliveries have connected Whitehair, Harvey and Slowtalker with distant family members and helped them forge new bonds. “At the end of the day,” Harvey said, “we approach as strangers with masks, but … we leave being called granddaughter or daughter or baby.” “Each elder,” Whitehair said, “has inspired us in a special way.” For these women, their own relatives served as inspiration for their work. Harvey’s grandmothers are living, but she’s driven by the thought they easily could have been among those taken by the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. “It just broke my heart to think that could be my grandma,” she said. “And I don’t want to lose her to this invisible enemy that we’re fighting against.” Added Whitehair: “I think we just kind of forget who our first teachers were, and that was our grandparents. And for me, both my grandparents have passed on. So it’s been kind of like, how do I give back? How do I make my grandparents proud?”
Since moving back to Leupp six years ago, Harvey has been connecting with the community. The pandemic has helped her find a way not only to give back but to build new relationships. Among her earliest supporters was her manager at Sam’s Club. “I explained to him what we were doing and that our community isn’t getting any help, and he just told me ‘Stop right there,’ and he reached into his pocket and literally handed me $100,” she said. She accepted the money, then began to cry. For more stories from Cronkite News, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org.
Volunteers with Defend Our Community are, from left, Emmy Slowtalker, Terrah Whitehair and Aimee Hanley. The group is distributing necessities to elders across the sprawling Navajo Nation Reservation. Photo courtesy of Defend Our Community
Note: This story originally appeared on Cronkite News. It is published via a Creative Commons license. Cronkite News is produced by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
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