Collaborating to Protect the Navajo Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

National Headquarters  |  October 23, 2020

Written by Ida Eva Zielinska

As the global outbreak of COVID-19 swept across the United States in the Spring and early Summer of 2020, New York dominated the headlines, having the highest number of confirmed cases. However, the Native American Navajo Nation was also hardest-hit at the same time, with a reported higher infection rate per capita than any other U.S. state in May.

Tzu Chi USA volunteers in Phoenix took the plight of the Navajo, who call themselves the Diné (The People), to heart and ventured into Diné Bikéyah (Navajoland) in Arizona to offer a helping hand through distributing personal protective equipment. They also joined forces with other groups striving to protect this vulnerable population, quarantining in remote and isolated places on the reservation, often without running water or electricity. 

To serve families living around Sanders in eastern Arizona  – a remote unincorporated town with a population of around 630, located in Apache County in the Navajo Nation – Tzu Chi volunteers found contact points through a group of volunteers of the Bahá’í faith: Volunteers from the Bahá’ís of Gallup, New Mexico, have been helping the most vulnerable members of Native communities for some time, through donations of food, water, and goods.

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Together, a team of Bahá’í and Tzu Chi volunteers traveled to Sanders to distribute food and other supplies provided by the Bahá’ís of Gallup, which Tzu Chi USA supplemented by adding personal protective equipment (PPE). For the Bahá’í volunteers, helping is a fundamental part of their faith, as Rosanne Groger-Bathke, a member of the group and volunteer, shared:

The Bahá'í Faith is a worldwide religion, and its major pivotal principle is the unity and oneness of humankind. It's so natural to want to help our brothers and sisters who've been affected across the Navajo Nation. As you know, this is a [real] hot spot for COVID-19.

As for Tzu Chi volunteers, the collaboration offered new avenues of assisting Native American communities, Ren Liu explained:

[The] Bahá’í Faith group, because they have a long relationship and [are] working inside the reservation, they have a very good relationship and they have a contact point of people in the villages to distribute the food. But the need is for medical masks. Tzu Chi already [has] the masks from Taiwan and through member donations throughout the United States. So, that’s a very good [cooperative] effort.

The joint effort was mutually beneficial, as “with Tzu Chi coming through with providing these masks and gloves we can now allocate those funds to other needed assets or supplies like bleach. Everyone wants bleach and it’s hard to find. We’re also offering produce when we can’t find produce from say, the food pantry,” Rosanne said.

When the team of Bahá’í and Tzu Chi volunteers arrived in Sanders, they served many families with multiple generations living in one household, which is common in Native American communities. The impact of the pandemic was sadly evident, as many residents shared stories of loved ones lost. Some shared that “We try to stay home as much as we can to keep [a distance] from everybody.” Yet for many, such measures were to no avail as someone in their household had died from the virus, and said, “It’s everywhere. It’s awful.”

Still, the Navajo families were very thankful to see these Good Samaritans coming to them, bearing the gift of much-needed supplies.

You think that we’re living okay, but we’re scared of the virus. And I’m trying to keep my grandkids happy, so we stay away from those areas where they meet people. You’re the first people that came over to deliver the food to us, and I’m just so happy! Thank you so much. I have a big family. I have grandkids and my older daughters, my older son, and my husband. So, I appreciate all the food. I know we’re going to make use of it. [And] we really needed the masks and the sanitizer and the gloves.

Sunshine Yellowhorse, another resident, found the aid heartwarming, saying, “It makes us feel that somebody cares about us, instead of just [forgetting] about us. You know, it really touched my heart to see stuff like that, people helping the Navajo Nation.”

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Tzu Chi Phoenix also worked together with the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund, started by Ethel Branch. She had personally witnessed the challenges Native American communities face during the pandemic and stepped up to do something about it.

Arizona was starting to be hit by the COVID-19 epidemic. I was shopping for myself and my mom, who takes care of my nieces; she lives in the Navajo Nation. They don’t have running water or electricity, and I couldn’t find a lot of things that she needed. So, I decided it was worthwhile to go ahead and start a GoFundMe, and by 11 o’clock that evening, we’d raised $5,000.

The relief fund blossomed quickly and is now an “all-volunteer grassroots indigenous-led” aid initiative “providing relief support for Diné and Hopi Families affected by the COVID-19 crisis.” The fund prioritizes “the elderly (especially those raising their grandchildren), single parents, and struggling families by helping them buy groceries, water, and health supplies.” The group also strives to “[protect] them (and their vulnerable communities) from exposure by engaging volunteers to make the purchases and deliver them to a safe transfer location for the families.”

Together, Tzu Chi USA and Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund addressed certain unique needs that emerged in some communities. As the Navajo Nation fights the COVID-19 pandemic, many multigenerational households struggle to find room to quarantine family members infected with the virus, as was the case in the village of White Cone, Arizona, which Tzu Chi volunteers visited in June for a PPE delivery.

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By partnering, Tzu Chi USA and Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund were able to mobilize and provide a solution for White Cone village residents. On July 14, the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund provided tents next to COVID-19 patients’ homes to separate those infected from their family members. In turn, Tzu Chi provided foldable beds so patients could self-quarantine comfortably, along with a donation of PPE for the community, totaling 500 medical masks, 400 KN95 respirators, 50 isolation gowns, and 250 cloth masks.

The collaborations between Tzu Chi Phoenix volunteers and those from other aid groups also led to Tzu Chi USA’s donations of PPE to Sage Memorial Hospital, located in Ganado, Arizona, inside the Navajo Reservation. The hospital is part of the first Native-managed comprehensive healthcare system in the United States. During the pandemic, it is facing particular challenges in terms of obtaining PPE, as Jefferson James, Sage Memorial’s Purchasing Supervisor shared:

We’re located in a remote area and a lot of the shipments aren’t easily accessible for us … because most of our supplies are from across the country.

Ethel Branch from the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund pointed out that volunteers from different aid groups working together during the pandemic will be of long-term benefit: “To have these volunteer networks come into formation now I think is going to be really helpful in helping our communities respond to future emergencies. I think that that volunteer infrastructure is going to be really important in the future for saving additional lives.”

Jefferson James from Sage Memorial Hospital added that Tzu Chi and the Navajo actually share similar values: “Everything is not about [materialism] you know. As Navajos, we have this what we call Clan System. And that Clan System is what holds us together. And we communicate, and we help each other. You share this love, and you share a lot of these inner relationships. And that’s the way I look at your Tzu Chi Foundation. And we really appreciate that.” Indeed, such humanitarian sentiments echo in Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s words: “When we regard sentient beings as our loved ones, it would be unbearable to see them suffer.”

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The team aid effort then led to Piñon, Arizona, an isolated community that sometimes feels forgotten.

We’re one of the remote people. We’re overlooked all the time. They just say, ‘Oh well, you know, Piñon and the rest of that community won’t notice anything.’ And this is the first, first project that is so caring. Somebody out there in the world has compassion and love to give their hard-earned money is just the love for your people. The compassion you have I think that’s what this relief project has.

Here, the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund distributed care packages, which included masks provided by Tzu Chi Phoenix. The food itself is of great benefit to many families in the area, Ethel explained: “You know a $100,000 worth of food that serves about 1,000 households and each household is on average about four people per household so we’re serving about 4,000 people every week.” As for the masks provided by Tzu Chi, they were also a great blessing, as Wanda Tsedah, a local resident shared: “Some people around here they charge for… you know, to buy, you have to buy masks, and we don’t have any masks. You guys giving us free masks [is] really helpful.”

Tzu Chi USA’s aid for vulnerable communities such as the Navajo is ongoing and responsive to their needs as they evolve during the pandemic. Please support our Together While Apart: Compassion for the Long Haul activities to help beneficial collaborations such as these emerge and flourish into the future, helping those most in need during this global health crisis.

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