COVID ravaged McKinley County, where roughly 74% of the population is non-Hispanic Native American — mostly Navajo and Zuni — and access to resources is scarce.
Caitlynn Mayhew filled the cardboard box with supplies. Clorox wipes. Protein bars. Handmade masks. Toothpaste.
“Basic needs that most people take for granted, we desperately need on the reservation,” she said. “I’m trying to send as much as possible.”
Mayhew is originally from the Cove community on the Navajo Nation. She now lives in Washington state, but has continued to ship resources to her family on the reservation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stretching 27,000 square miles across the Southwest, the Navajo Nation unfolds into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Geographically, it’s the largest reservation in the United States — and for over 156,000 Diné (as the Navajo people call themselves), it’s home.
Caitlynn Mayhew stands in front of a box of supplies that she’s sending her family on the Navajo Nation reservation. (Photo: Dermont Stevenson, courtesy of Caitlynn Mayhew.)
It’s also a region that’s been among the most devastated by COVID-19. With 11,101 infections and 574 confirmed deaths as of Thursday, the Navajo Nation has a higher per capita COVID-19 death rate than any U.S. state.
Over the summer, COVID-19 cases declined — amid strict public health orders and grassroots community relief efforts. But, in recent weeks, the reservation and surrounding areas have reported an uptick in new numbers.
“We need our voice to be heard on a national level,” said Mayhew, pointing to pre-existing infrastructure absences that were amplified with the coronavirus — including daily realities like chronically underfunded healthcare, families living without running water or electricity and high rates of food insecurity — inequities rooted in unfulfilled promises and systemic racism dating back to colonization.
“It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for the general public to realize that the community here is disadvantaged,” said Mayhew.
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Starting as early as January, Diné have rushed to the frontlines to protect their community. Some, like Mayhew, gather supplies for their relatives — even from states away. Others wrap up bundles of medicine for elders, or use their personal vehicles to deliver groceries and hot meals to remote homes.
“That’s just resiliency — that’s just a reaction of our own culture to get through this,” Ira Vandever, incident commander for Baca-Prewitt Chapter of the Navajo Nation, told USA TODAY. “We’ve been dealing with diseases and [injustice] since 1492, when Columbus came. And we’re still here.”
Jimmie Begay loads bags of flour onto a truck for delivery to at-risk residents on the Ramah Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. The Ramah distribution team receives support from nonprofits including Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund and McKinley Mutual Aid. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USAT)
How can you help? Here’s some Native-led nonprofits working to provide COVID-19 relief for the Navajo Nation and Indigenous communities across the country.
1. The Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund aids Diné and Hopi families affected by the coronavirus. The all-volunteer grassroots organization provides education for COVID-safe practices and delivers nutritional groceries to community members’ front doors.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Cassandra Begay, the organization’s deputy director, adding that the fund has distributed food, cleaning supplies and PPE to over 23,000 families so far.
You can support or learn more about the Navajo and Hopi COVID-19 Families Relief Fund here.
Helena Begay, who collaborates with PWNA, started educating her elders about coronavirus at the end of January. Months into the pandemic, she’s grateful that they took action early on. “I think that’s where we saved a lot of lives,” she said. (Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Peraza, Partnership With Native Americans.)
2. The Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) is a Native-led nonprofit that aids remote and impoverished reservation communities. PWNA offers immediate relief and long-term solutions for self-sufficiency, including scholarships for Indigenous students and emergency deliveries of supplies.
“Today, we’re primarily focused on relief for communities across Indian Country that were facing their own unique challenges even prior to COVID-19, including the year-round lack of access to basics such as food, water and healthcare,” said Josh Arce, president & CEO of PWNA.
You can support or learn more about PWNA here.
3. United Natives is a nonprofit focused on supporting Native youth. The organization has also been active in COVID-19 relief efforts — delivering care packages and co-creating a Native-led, intertribal quarantine site for COVID-positive Native Americans in Arizona. The site offers physical and mental health services — such as individual therapy, yoga for trauma healing and plant-based nutrition.
Dr. Crystal Lee (middle) delivering supplies with United Natives. (Photo: Courtesy of Crystal Lee)
Dr. Crystal Lee, CEO/Founder of United Natives is also an advisor on both the United Nations (UN) North American Indigenous Caucus and the UN Indigenous Women’s Caucus. She recognizes the power of Native communities — and stresses the need of Indigenous presence in decision-making bodies from a local to international level.
“Oftentimes, we’re invisible — our issues reflect that,” she said. “We need more representation at every table.”
You can support or learn more about United Natives here.
4. McKinley Mutual Aid (MMA) is a grassroots group of volunteers and collaborative effort among four community-based nonprofits: Indigenous Life Ways, Strengthening Nations, New Mexico Social Justice and Equity Institute, and the McKinley Community Health Alliance.
Over the course of the pandemic, MMA has prepared and delivered care packages (of food, water and PPE) to community members in and surrounding reservation areas of northwestern New Mexico.
You can support or learn more about MMA here.
Christian Vasquez, deputy director of Strengthening Nations, pushes a pallet of sanitary kits through the First United Methodist Church as part of an effort by McKinley Mutual Aid in Gallup, N.M. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USAT)
5. Seeding Sovereignty identifies as “Indigenous, womxn-led collective.” It has launched a long-term mutual aid program in response to COVID-19: the Indigenous Impact Community Care Initiative.
The initiative works in partnership with tribal communities across the country to provide PPE, healthy food and essential aid to those most vulnerable — including elders and unsheltered relatives.
You can support or learn more about Seeding Sovereignty here.
Contributing: Dennis Wagner, USA TODAY.
David Martine (left) and Vernard Martinez (right) deliver supplies to the home of Gilbert Martinez on the Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USAT)
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