Alicia Chee is bouncing along a 10-mile dirt road, trailing a plume of red dust behind her borrowed black pickup. The 36-year-old Navajo legislative assistant left her home on the reservation before six this morning to shop for groceries and deliver them to a remote family stricken with coronavirus, something she does weekly. It’s not a part of her official government duties, and she makes the three-hour round trip on her own time and with her own money.
Spanning portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation is home to 180,000 people served by just 13 grocery stores and four hospitals. An estimated 40 percent of reservation households are without running water and/or electricity. Before COVID-19 arrived, Native Americans were already at a distinct disadvantage. According to a recent report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, broken treaties with the federal government have “left many reservations without adequate access to clean water, plumbing, electricity, internet, cellular service, roads, public transportation, housing, hospitals, and schools.”
The first case of the coronavirus in the Navajo Nation was reported on March 17. Within days the number was well over 100. By mid-May the rate of infection on the reservation had surpassed that of New York and New Jersey, known as the epicenter of the pandemic. The Navajo people, already saddled with high rates of disease, poverty and unemployment, were ill-equipped to contain a highly infectious virus.
As Alicia approaches the remote homestead with her load of groceries, she passes a tattered and faded American flag fluttering in the heat of another 100-degree day. Three brown horses escort her truck the last half mile to the waiting family, their low beige and brick house blending in with the dusty red landscape. A sign is affixed to the front door. “NO VISITING” it says, in red hand-painted letters. “Stay Away!”
A masked woman and her elderly mother, both recovering from COVID-19, step outside to greet Alicia. The older woman, wearing mismatched rubber gloves, stays close to the door, in a sliver of shade. Her grandson stands off to the side. He has been home since the University of Utah closed its Salt Lake campus back in March and has been caring for the two women and filling in for his mother at her local government job. He is anxious to finish his education and return to the reservation. “I’m not a city person,” he says. “This is home. I want to come back.”
With an unseen generator humming in the background, the three women exchange news about neighbors, family and the pandemic. “The other sister down there, just past the windmill,” says the woman, pointing into the distance, “they lost two, my aunt’s son and the granddaughter. They’re going to have funerals this coming week.” The conversation eventually turns from COVID-19’s victims to family origins. “Everyone’s always related somehow,” says Alicia. The grandmother chimes in, speaking Navajo, and everyone nods whether they understand or not.
Bringing needed groceries and supplies, Alicia Chee approaches a remote Navajo homestead.
Because they don’t have electricity, Alicia only buys non-perishable goods for the quarantined family.
It takes several trips to carry the groceries from the truck to the table where they are cleaned and brought inside. Toilet paper, Clorox, pickles, cupcakes and coffee are just part of the haul. Because the house has no electricity, Alicia has to be careful about what she buys. “The thing about produce, it goes bad so fast.”
Although the women are close to recovery, their health problems are not over. “I was severely dehydrated,” the sick woman says. “I lost 15 pounds in the last week. It affected my kidney function. So that has to get back to normal. I’m still recovering.” She is hoping to return to work in a few weeks. “I’m going to try to do what I can from here. That’s why I had him turn on the generator,” she says, nodding to her son.
A Return to the Reservation
Alicia Chee was born on the reservation, raised in a home without running water and electricity. “We grew up filling buckets and carrying it into the house,” she says. “Doing homework with a flashlight or a candle.” Because she lived farthest from the school, the bus would pick her up at five in the morning. “And that’s still going on today,” she says. “My nieces and nephews have to do that.”
She left home in 2002, earned a degree from the University of Denver, and settled into a new life in the mile-high city. But she couldn’t help but worry about what she had left behind. “My family, they’re all here,” she says. “I had missed out on so much. I needed to go back!” She returned to find that not much had changed. “I left in 2002 and I came back in 2017, and we have more people without electricity and water.”
Alicia’s visit gives everyone a chance to catch up on local news.
Landing a job on the reservation wasn’t easy, but Alicia eventually found work as the legislative assistant to Navajo Council member Thomas Walker Jr., one of 24 delegates, each representing about five local chapter houses across the reservation. “I was trying to learn our Navajo Nation’s government system,” she says. “I was told there are no classes because it’s not in demand. So, I decided to get hands-on knowledge, just to have an understanding why everything still looks the same to me.”
Back from her early morning trip delivering groceries, Alicia is working for Delegate Walker in a makeshift office at one end of the house where the mobile Internet connection is stronger. “I jump on calls. Right now, the CARES Act is a hot topic,” she says. A friend and neighbor, who happens to be an Arizona state senator, never misses an opportunity to suggest Alicia run for office herself someday.
Arizona’s First Navajo Woman State Senator
Jamescita Peshlakai is the first Navajo woman to serve as a state senator in Arizona. “It only took 106 years for that to occur,” she says. Before her two terms as senator, she served one term as a state representative. Six years in office, she is running unopposed this November.
For the time being, Jamescita and her partner Glenn Peaches live at her mother Mae’s house. Like many of their neighbors, the Peshlakais built a hogan out back, a traditional Navajo structure used for ceremonies and special occasions. Mae also uses hers for silversmithing and jewelry making. Sen. Peshlakai’s own home is without electricity and running water. A water line is said to be coming this year, but there is no expectation of getting power anytime soon. This is especially frustrating due to the fact that rows of giant power lines pass nearly overhead. “You step out of the house and all you hear is ZZZZZZZZ and buzzing, but we have no electricity,” she says. “And yet we all live under those.”
Sen. Peshlakai represents an area the size of West Virginia. “The Grand Canyon cuts through the middle of my district.”
Whether in the car or at her mother’s kitchen table, Peshlakai is constantly on the phone or teleconferencing with colleagues and constituents spread across an area the size of West Virginia, one of the largest state legislative districts in the country. “With the vastness of the geographic region, it’s huge, it’s hard,” she says. “One of my tribes is down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.”
Visiting a Remote Outpost
As they do every two weeks, Jamescita and Glenn drive out to visit her 80-year-old Aunt Eleanor who lives alone with her sheep and goats at the end of a 25-mile dirt road. “She’s been the rock of the family,” says Jamescita. “She’s our center. She doesn’t know it, but she is.” Tonight, they are bringing food, water and a cooler of ice. Named after Mrs. Roosevelt, Eleanor never married, never had children and never learned English. Like many Navajos on the reservation, she survives without running water or electricity. Her existence is not entirely primitive though. She has a Chevy pickup for occasional trips to the store and also uses the truck to keep her phone charged.
Wearing a cloth mask, Eleanor steps outside with the aid of a walker that soon doubles as a chair. She and Jamescita sit and talk, six feet apart. “She has an understanding of the virus and how easily it is moving through the population,” says Jamescita. “And even though she’s really isolated, she does have people that come to see her, and she’s good about cleaning the house and putting on a mask.” As a Navajo elder, Eleanor is entitled to weekly visits from a community nurse who makes sure she is taking her medications and helps out as needed.
Eighty-year-old Eleanor Peshlakai lives alone without running water or electricity.
Eleanor’s well-worn, pedal-operated sewing machine still sees regular use.
Eleanor’s eight-sided hogan is simple and small. As is the tradition, a stove sits in the middle of the room with a pipe rising straight up through the ceiling. An ancient foot-operated Singer sewing machine looks like it was recently used. With wool from her flock, Eleanor is also a weaver. She is concerned that a man who promised to buy one of her rugs has not called. She needs the money to buy a new muffler for her truck.
The sun sets behind one of several old trucks scattered around Eleanor’s homestead.
A Family Mourns
Politically active, Wilfred Neztsosie Sr. was a friend, neighbor and inspiration to Sen. Peshlakai. Many members of his extended family live in scattered houses within sight of each other. Wilfred shared a home with his wife Maybell, his grown son Jimmie and two grandchildren. He died May 13 of COVID-19.
After Wilfred was diagnosed, Maybell tested positive but the grandchildren did not. A few weeks later, Jimmie, a single parent with two disabled children, tested positive too. He was forced to split up the family, finding temporary homes for his mother and son. His daughter stayed where she was, and Jimmie slept outside. “I camped out in the shed all this time,” he says. “It was hard.”
Sen. Peshlakai consoles the widow of a friend who recently died of COVID-19. “Everybody respected him.”
Maybell Neztsosie’s family had to be split up when some of them tested positive.
With her father in the hospital and the rest of the family in quarantine, Jimmie’s sister Delma kept everyone fed. Gathered around the open shed that had served as Jimmie’s temporary home, Sen. Peshlakai recently spoke with Wilfred’s family about their father’s legacy. “I want you to know that your dad was a wonderful leader in our community,” she told them. “Everybody knew him. Everybody respected him.”
Making a Living by the Side of the Road
Candice Yazee has a degree in biomedical science and is currently working as a STEM education coordinator at the school her daughter attends. Her education was financed by the family business, selling Navajo jewelry by the side of the road to tourists. “I’m always going to have the family business here for me as an option,” she says. “But I think I want to pursue public health or policy [as a career].”
Candice Yazee’s college education was financed by her family’s roadside jewelry business.
Candice’s mother started the business as a child. She and her six siblings were orphaned and basically raised themselves in a one-room house, surviving on donations of food and supplies. When they became adults and had to fend for themselves, they turned to the jewelry business, spreading their wares on a blanket beside the road. As her mother became more established, she built a large open stall, one of several lined up along Desert View Drive, leading to the eastern entrance to the Grand Canyon.
“I chose biology to get away from the family business,” Candice says now. “By the time I was graduating high school I didn’t want anything to do with it. And I never really appreciated it until after.”
Today, the rows of vending stalls sit empty. A car or motorcycle will occasionally rush past but there is no reason for them to stop. Because of COVID-19, business has come to a halt, leaving over 100 local vendors and their suppliers indefinitely without an income. “People are getting by how they can,” says Candice. “I don’t think they will survive long.”
COVID-19’s Arrival on the Reservation
The reservation’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 came from Chilchinbeto, a remote community of 500 people. Starting in mid-March, the number of local cases grew rapidly, prompting the Navajo Nation Department of Health to order the community quarantined. Traffic in and out of the area was monitored by the Navajo police while officials struggled to stop the spread of infections.
In late June, things are quiet at the Chilchinbeto Chapter House on a hot afternoon. There are only one or two cars in the dirt parking lot. A bright yellow hand-lettered sign implores visitors to “REMAIN SEATED IN YOUR VEHICLE!” Inside, Chapter Manager Evelyna Cleveland-Gray surveys the pallets of water, toilet paper and cleaning supplies that fill the meeting room. “We have to load up our vehicles and drive out there to deliver water and food boxes that they can’t come here to pick up,” she says. Before the pandemic, people would come to the chapter house and pay cash for water. “We shut that down.”
A lack of infrastructure makes communicating with constituents difficult for Chapter President Thomas Bradley.
Chapter President Thomas Bradley is here today, under a tree, out of the sun. He lost a grandson to the coronavirus, and a son-in-law who lived next door. “[Our] custom is, we all live in one hogan. Five, six families, right together. That’s what happened at my place,” he says. “This is how it is. We can’t go anywhere.”
Bradley was frustrated by his inability to communicate with constituents and the Navajo central government during the quarantine. “I stayed home. As an official I was told to stay home. I don’t have a computer and I’m stuck, by myself,” he says. “I sit out here with stuff happening and then I’ll be the last one to hear what’s going on.”
Chapter Manager Evelyna Cleveland-Gray nods toward President Bradley from six feet away. “The hard part is, he doesn’t have social media. We have to check our email every day and when I see a teleconference coming up, I have to print that message and hand it to him so he can call in,” she says. “But now they’re just doing the live Facebook, so it’s hard for him to stay updated.”
In a community this small, everyone, it seems, has been touched by the pandemic. Rose Gillis is the chapter’s administrative assistant. “My parents are both in the hospital. I’ve got my fingers crossed,” she says. “My mother-in-law, a 94-year-old lady, she got it and survived. Her daughter and son-in-law, we lost both of them. It was hard. I had to handle everything alone.”
Fighting for the Future
Until she was reassigned to help with COVID-19 response efforts, Tosheena Nez was working for the Navajo Department of Health, providing diabetes prevention and intervention services. This afternoon, she is loading wooden pallets into the back of a pickup truck with two of her colleagues. “JOINT RESPONSE TEAM” is spelled out in big black letters across the back of her white shirt. Standing in the middle of an expansive dirt parking lot, a red and black umbrella offers at least a little relief from the sun on this 100-degree day.
Earlier in the day Tosheena had been sanitizing and packing donated food and supplies into boxes for delivery to COVID-19 patients. “Our target population is people who are COVID-19 positive, people in quarantine and people who are in those high-risk groups that include the elderly and people who don’t have access to transportation,” she says. “We don’t want them going out and contaminating anyone. We want them to stay in isolation, stay home.”
COVID-19 response worker Tosheena Nez is convinced that many of the Navajo’s problems are due to a lack of basic resources.
Tosheena has a degree from the University of California at Irvine. “I went away to study, so I could come back,” she says. Born and raised on the reservation, her concerns for the community are many. High rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease among Navajos, she believes, are all attributable to the lack of basic resources on the reservation. Clean water, good food and access to medical care are hard to come by here, something she knows first-hand. She lives in a trailer with four younger siblings and without running water. “We really need running water.”
“A lot of our issues are historical,” Tosheena says. “We are fighting to survive. We are fighting to be healthy. We have to fight all these fights in order to survive. If I wasn’t hopeful, I wouldn’t be out here doing what I do.”
A warning sign inside Navajo Nation.