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How COVID-19 put Native American needs on the aid map

‘There’s this consciousness in the public, across the board, that didn’t used to be there.’

Bobby Martin, leader of the Navajo-Hopi Honor Riders, a group of largely Native American bikers, unloads water for people in need on the Navajo Nation reservation.
Bobby Martin, leader of the Navajo-Hopi Honor Riders, a group of largely Native American bikers, unloads water for people in need on the Navajo Nation reservation. (Luke Simmons/TNH)

Leaders of non-profit organisations serving Native American communities in the United States say they’ve been inundated with unprecedented financial support over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Native Americans are three times as likely to have died from the virus than white Americans, according to the APM Research Lab. America’s largest Indian reservation, the Navajo Nation, has lost 1,471 residents to COVID-19. That figure equates to a staggering death rate of 847 per 100,000 residents – double the worst-affected US state.

But with all of this loss and hardship has come media attention, and donations from the public. At least $8.7 million poured into GoFundMe campaigns for Native communities between March and October 2020 alone, according to Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP). In June, NAP announced it had also received a “multi-million-dollar” donation from MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. 

“I’m very optimistic,” said Erik Stegman, (Carry the Kettle First Nation – Nakoda), chief executive officer of NAP. “There's this consciousness in the public, across the board, that didn't used to be there.” 

Native Americans constitute 2.9 percent of the American population, according to 2020 census data, but between 2002 and 2016 received just 0.4 percent of its philanthropic dollars, according to a recent report from NAP. Yet due to the devastating effects of colonisation and systemic racism, Indigenous populations in the US continue to experience hunger, homelessness, and lack of access to electricity and running water at rates at least twice as high as Americans as a whole.

“We struggle day to day with an invisibility issue,” Stegman said. “The only thing most people really understand about our communities is what they get from their middle or high school textbook, which is not much and that's often a really bad narrative. It tends to dwell on our historical traumas and not our contemporary cultural strengths.”

Advocates like Stegman are harnessing the moment.

Indigenous-led organisations across the country have stepped up to try to tackle the crisis – distributing food and water, making masks by hand, delivering essentials like diapers and bleach so people don’t have to leave their homes. Now, more Americans than ever know who these Indigenous activists and organisers are, what they need, and what they are capable of. 

Overcoming the myth of no needs in America

On a cold April morning in Gallup, New Mexico – a small city surrounded by Indian reservations for the Zuni, Navajo, Acoma Pueblo, and Laguna Pueblo tribes – 31-year-old Krystal Curley (Navajo Nation) is in the driver's seat of a 26-foot box truck.

Curley is the executive director of Indigenous Lifeways – a Native-led non-profit that is ingrained in the communities it serves. Her truck is filled with blankets and pallets of canned water donated by American actor Sean Penn’s organisation, CORE. She left Gallup and in just 15 minutes was driving on the Navajo reservation – a sovereign entity larger in area than 10 US states.

Curley said her organisation’s funding has increased by a multiple of eight during the pandemic, fuelled by both small PayPal donations from individuals and larger grants from organisations. She and others have been working tirelessly to use those donations to provide pandemic relief and address the reservation’s underlying challenges.

“I just want for my community to have jobs, to have a roof over their head, to have clean water, to have clean energy, to have food at their table,” she said. “For so long, so many generations, we had to live without all of that.”

Curley grew up working alongside her mother, raising awareness of the detrimental effects of uranium mining on Native land. She first got involved in community organising at 14 and took a break to pursue a traditional career in her 20s. But eventually Curley realised that over the years, “nothing [had] really changed” – the issues her family had dedicated their lives to persisted – so she committed herself to Indigenous Lifeways full-time.

“I couldn't have picked a better time to move back and quit my job,” she said. “Because I don't know what would have happened if I wasn't here. I think about that all the time.”

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Krystal Curley, executive director of Indigenous Lifeways, unloads cans of water for distribution. Her non-profit delivers essentials to parts of the reservation where water and electricity are scarce.
Luke Simmons/TNH
Krystal Curley, executive director of Indigenous Lifeways, unloads cans of water for distribution. Her non-profit delivers essentials to parts of the reservation where water and electricity are scarce.

More than one million Americans who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native live on reservations or other tribal lands, according to 2010 US Census data. Often forcibly removed from their homelands, hundreds of distinct Native American tribes were pushed onto these plots of land during the United States’ rabid expansion, sometimes through deadly migrations with long stops in internment camps.

Today, the median income for Native households on the reservations is $29,097, less than half the median household for white Americans. Native Americans on and off the reservation have the highest poverty rate of any race in the United States, at 25.4 percent. The rate for the United States as a whole is 11.4 percent

Public health expert Crystal Lee (Navajo Nation) has worked on Indigenous issues with the United Nations for more than a decade.

“The issues are very similar for Indigenous peoples, whether they come from developed nations or underdeveloped nations,” Lee said. “All of us definitely have adverse impacts on our health, culture, language, societal and political systems, as it pertains to colonisation directly.”

For the original source of these common issues, Lee points to the Doctrine of Discovery – a 1493 papal decree authorising Christians everywhere to claim and colonise the Americas, precedent for Manifest Destiny and US Supreme Court decisions. 

During her tenure with the UN, she has worked to overcome the misconception that no dire humanitarian need could exist in a country as rich as the United States. Many parts of America’s Indian reservations do not resemble the rest of the country. And poor access to healthcare and healthy food, and the prevalence of close knit, multigenerational families often living in close quarters conspired to make COVID-19 particularly devastating for Indigenous Americans that live there. 

The benefits of Indigenous-led aid

Advocates stress that not every dollar going towards Indigenous aid efforts is equally impactful.

According to a 2018 report from the First Nations Development Institute, an Indigenous advocacy organisation, the majority of grant dollars in support of Native causes go to non-Native-led organisations. These organisations can be, according to First Nations Development Institute Vice President Raymond Foxworth, well intentioned but out of touch with Native communities’ most pressing needs. 

And at their worst, they can “contribute to this sort of paternalistic cycle of community development that just hasn't worked, not only in the US, it hasn't worked globally”, Foxworth said. “Unless we’re putting community and economic development in the hands of Native people, it’s just colonialism by another name.”

Curley’s operation is Indigenous-led and plugged into its community. She has been able to use her funding to deliver essential goods – food boxes, water, and firewood – directly to family’s homes as the virus and strict lockdowns have made shopping illegal and unsafe. 

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Velma Pinto stands in front of the house where she lives with her husband and five children. The family have no running water. Here, they have just received a delivery of water from Indigenous Lifeways.
Luke Simmons/TNH
Velma Pinto stands in front of the house where she lives with her husband and five children. The family have no running water. Here, they have just received a delivery of water from Indigenous Lifeways.

“[People] understood that if you just gave us a chance and gave us some money and invested in us, we can do it. Just give it to us and trust us – just do it,” Curley said. “I feel like I’m finally being heard.”

Bobby Martin (Navajo Nation) leads the Navajo-Hopi Honor Riders, a group of largely Native motorcyclists who do funeral escorts for families of military veterans. He said that prior to the pandemic, they would do one or two escorts per week, but during the height of the virus, they averaged up to five per week.

“Unless we’re putting community and economic development in the hands of Native people, it’s just colonialism by another name.” 

Martin’s younger cousin was Lori Piestewa, who was killed in Iraq in 2003, becoming the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the US military. After her death, a prominent mountain in Phoenix, Arizona was named in her honour. Its previous name contained a racial slur for a Native woman. 

“Lori – that was an eye-opener for a lot of people,” Martin said. “She died, but she made history.”

Martin said donations for his organisation are six times higher since the pandemic began.

“It's amazing to me to see how the recognition of Native American people is finally happening,” Martin said.

Decades of unaddressed needs

Payton Willeto and Pamela Borja, tribal employees and certified nursing assistants, regularly took a pick-up truck from Crownpoint into the reservation to provide health checks and education. On this day, they were also bringing canned water from Curley’s box truck directly to people’s homes. 

Neither Harry Tsosie, 65, nor his wife Grace Tsosie, 70 – the first people Willeto and Borja check in on in the remote Pueblo Pintado area – had wandered much beyond their home since COVID-19 reached the reservation. In the spring, the sun shines and the temperature reaches over 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But during the winter months, the high desert across the Navajo Nation is bitterly cold.

“We don't have no heat or no electricity. Nothing,” Grace Tsosie said from her front porch. They also have no running water. Last winter, they relied on Willeto to bring them firewood and other essentials. She was their lifeline. 

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Harry Tsosie and his wife, Grace, stand on their front porch in Pueblo Pintado on the Navajo Nation in April 2021. Tribal employees have delivered essential goods and health checks to the couple since the pandemic began.
Luke Simmons/TNH
Harry Tsosie and his wife, Grace, stand on their front porch in Pueblo Pintado on the Navajo Nation in April 2021. Tribal employees have delivered essential goods and health checks to the couple since the pandemic began.

In the 1980s, Grace Tsosie’s grandmother, Mae Chee Castillo, made national headlines when she was invited to President Ronald Reagan’s White House to be honoured for an act of heroism. According to several media outlets, she went off script and was reprimanded by the president's aides. 

"Native American elderly… do not have the basic necessities of life such as food, housing, electricity, water, and healthcare,” she told him. “I plead with you to recognise the needs of Native American children and elderly.”

On the Navajo Nation today, an estimated 15 percent of people have no access to running water in their home. On and off the reservation, Native American households are 19 times more likely than white families to lack indoor plumbing. And over a quarter of the homes on the reservation lack electricity hook-ups, according to the American Public Power Association. 

Only one person Willeto and Borja visited that day, Danny Pinto, had running water. But he had to boil it before drinking because, he said, “it tastes like Clorox.” Pinto’s daughter lived nearby in an approximately 200 square foot home, with her husband and five children, ages three to 16. Back in April, none of them had gone to school since the pandemic struck, their only education being packets of paper worksheets. 

Education, internet, and power

The high school graduation rate for Native Americans in the US is 74 percent, the lowest of any racial/ethnic group, according to the National School Boards Association. And there is widespread concern that this education gap has worsened during the pandemic, as Native American students are less likely to have internet access and less likely to be able to connect with a teacher and do virtual schooling. Native American undergraduate college enrollment declined 13 percent between spring 2020 and spring 2021 – the largest drop-off of any racial/enthic group, according to National Student Clearinghouse. 

Sixty percent of Navajo Nation residents had no fixed internet access as of summer 2020, according to testimony the tribe’s President Jonathan Nez gave to the US Congress. That number has improved in recent months, as more than $30 million of COVID-19 federal relief funds have gone to increase connectivity on the reservation. But they have a long way to go: Across the United States as a whole, 94 percent of people have a high speed internet connection. 

Grace Tsosie is hopeful that electricity hook-ups are coming to the area soon, but she said what would help them more than anything are solar panels. Still, despite the challenges, this is the Tsosies’ home – Grace grew up here, her parents and grandparents lived here, and today her daughter lives just a few hundred feet from her with her own children. 

“When you talk to these families out here that live under these conditions, they go, ‘I'm not poor, I have 10 grandkids’, or, ‘this is where I’ve lived for 10 plus generations’,” Curley said. “There's a different way that we think of wealth.”

Michelle Bowman, Grace’s 36-year-old daughter, moved from the city to live near her mother 12 years ago. She was recovering from a divorce and said she didn’t want to turn to alcohol. Now, she’s remarried and has two children. She loves the country, where there is “no crime, the scenery, the fresh air, the peace”, she said.

Navajo Nation tribal employee and certified nursing assistant Payton Willeto unloads aid deliveries for people in the more remote rural parts of the reservation. The Chaco Trade Center is the only store for miles around near Pueblo Pintado. (Luke Simmons/TNH)

Bowman's husband had been unemployed since the pandemic began, and Bowman herself had been on medical leave, plagued by lingering health problems from a severe case of COVID-19 in May 2020. 

“It was like death and back,” she said of her battle with the virus. “There were times I didn't want to go to sleep because I didn't know if I was going to wake up.” 

Still, through her own life challenges, she has continued her family’s long-running fight to bring utilities to their area.

“My great grandma, she was a hero. But I just don't understand why [getting electricity and water] didn't happen sooner,” Bowman said. “My grandma used to say, we're just forgotten here.”

But now, she said, things may be changing. 

“Through this pandemic and virus, I think they think of us, I guess they think about here, because they're coming around,” she said, referring to officials discussing impending plans to bring electricity and water to the area.

“There were times I didn't want to go to sleep because I didn't know if I was going to wake up.” 

Since the pandemic began, the Navajo Nation has used federal COVID-19 relief funding to connect 721 families on the reservation to the electrical grid, according to The Navajo Times

Another reason for optimism – the vaccine rollout on the reservation. If the Navajo Nation was a country, it would be among the most vaccinated in the world – with a vaccination rate that was already approaching 80 percent in August, according to Nez

As recently as the 1970s, the US federal government-backed Indian Health Services (IHS) launched a campaign to covertly sterilise Native American women without their knowledge or consent. The vaccine rollout was spearheaded by this same IHS. 

“I’m really surprised with the IHS,” Curley said. “It’s almost like a healing.” The excellent vaccination rate, she said, represents a kind of “turnaround for us trusting science and trusting the healthcare system and trusting government.”

Borja and Willeto supported the vaccine effort, identifying where health officials needed to travel to in order to administer it to the reservation’s rural-dwelling residents. 

“I love my job, especially working with the elders,” Willeto said. “Native Americans… we get put in a certain category where people think that we're poor, or there's just nothing but alcoholism and stuff out this way. But they don't know that we're more than that. It's people out here, they don't like being identified that way.”

‘It’s like a portal that’s opened’

Although well over a year has passed since the pandemic first spiked on the Navajo Nation in the spring of 2020, Curley said donations are still flowing in for her organisation and others like it. 

NAP is currently working on a project to better quantify the financial support for Native-led causes across the country, and they may soon be able to determine how much that support has increased during the pandemic. 

Recently, Curley has been turning her attention to long-term solutions – like solar panels – while remaining vigilant of the fast-spreading Delta variant. She attributes the increase in financial support to media attention during the pandemic. 

Although, she said, “there’s a fine line of it being poverty porn, just glamorising our struggles,” she feels “it's a really incredible thing – how media is able to uplift our own voices, because for so long, we've been shut out” from the public conversation, history books, pop culture. 

“Because of COVID, because we had that spotlight, we had the mic for once.” 

“It’s like a portal that’s opened,” and suddenly Native people’s roles have been amplified, Curley said. She referenced the Hulu TV series “Reservation Dogs”, featuring an all-Indigenous group of writers, and Navajo advocate Shandiin Herrera’s appearance in a Verizon commercial

“I was brought up [to think] of this world [as] like a battery. And there's always a negative and there's always a positive,” she said. “We experienced COVID, it is negative, it is horrible.” But, she added, “You give us flour, lard and salt, and we make fry bread.” 

Curley said she believes mainstream media attention on the crises her family and so many others face and have been trying to make known for decades – uranium pollution, clean water access, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women – has increased.

“Because of COVID, because we had that spotlight, we had the mic for once. And the whole world was looking at us. And we took it, and we really tried to change something. And I think that's the most beautiful thing about it,” she said. “Continue to look at us. Don't forget us. Because we're still out here struggling.”

With additional reporting and research support from Luke Simmons.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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