Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi
Photos by Don J. Usner
On a recent visit to the Navajo Nation, I sat with my parents in their garage while KTNN, a local Navajo radio station, played in the background. I listened to the beat of Navajo traditional two-step music and skip dance songs, thinking about the time in elementary school that my late grandmother stayed up all night to make me a traditional Navajo outfit for a fundraising event. In between songs, messages in Diné encouraged listeners to stay home, pleading with the public to think of the safety and well-being of the Navajo Nation’s most vulnerable people — our elders.
Since the pandemic hit, memories and thoughts of my grandmother are ever present. The coronavirus, as of Aug. 4, has infected 9,139 people on the Navajo Nation and killed 462, many of them elderly.
What would it be like if my grandmother were here during COVID? I wondered. Could I keep myself from visiting for months? What would my family do to keep her safe?
When you grow up Navajo, at least for me, you are taught that elders are the pillars of the family, especially grandmothers. They are the keepers of our stories, history, traditions and culture. They connect us to our ancestors. They take care of us, and in exchange, we’re taught to look after them. When my late grandmother started to show signs of old age, I drove her to doctors’ appointments, cared for her on weekends, and made sure she yearned for nothing.
Are elders around the reservation getting the attention they need during the pandemic? And, most importantly, do they have enough water and food? I decided to find out.
Sisters Elizabeth Woody and Mary Beach outside Woody’s home on the Navajo Nation, south of Shiprock.
I began by interviewing people who live in the Northern Agency in northwest New Mexico, where my family is rooted. A large number of people over the age of 65 — nearly 350, according to Navajo Nation data — live in four remote communities along the foothills south of Shiprock. Dozens are 75 or older.
My first interviewee, a grandmother in her 70s, lives with her young granddaughter along a winding road in a small Navajo chapter in the rugged hills. When I arrived, the girl came running out of their cement home to greet me, then led me inside.
Her grandmother sat slumped over the edge of a stained mattress. I crouched nearby in an effort to maintain eye contact, taking care to maintain a safe distance. We talked about the pandemic, about life and death, and about her granddaughter. The girl had survived cancer and had lost her mother, while not yet 10 years old.
“I’m worried about my granddaughter,” the grandmother told me in Diné. Tears ran down her cheek.
On this hot summer day, the two were alone, left to look after one another, something the grandmother takes pride in, and something they are used to. They have no running water or indoor plumbing. The grandmother has to trek to an outhouse, built on such uneven ground that she has tripped and fallen on numerous occasions, leading to a hospitalization. Now she has a wheelchair, which she has to use more and more often.
She is barely able to stand to make a meal. Her salvation — the only reliable food she and her granddaughter can get — comes from the local senior center, which delivers a lunch they share Mondays through Fridays. On weekends, they fend for themselves.
Other than a ripped couch, the home has little furniture. The girl has few toys. Her prized possessions are a few notepads, which are completely covered with drawings, one on top of the other, because she’s used up every last page.
The grandmother said she and her son have taken care of the child since she turned four. When her son is away at his job, which is often, she is responsible for the girl.
“She’s the only one that takes care of me,” the grandmother said. “We take care of each other.”
Tears began to flood my eyes behind the surgical mask and Navajo scarf I wore. My voice turned shaky as I complimented her efforts to look after her granddaughter and thanked her in Navajo for sharing her story. I’ve been a journalist for almost 20 years, and it was the first time I cried on assignment.
I visited three other elders that week, at a peak of the COVID-19 crisis on the reservation.
Edison Johnson, a man in his 60s, lives in a dirt-floored shack with no running water, toilet, sink, kitchen — or electricity. He stores food in plastic coolers; he has no access to ice, so they keep nothing cool.
Eating fresh food is almost impossible because there is no way to keep it from spoiling. He lives off of processed foods that keep without a refrigerator.
When he needs electricity, he runs a series of extension cords from his son’s house to his own, at the top of a hill. “I wish I had an oven so I can make biscuits,” he said.
Elizabeth Woody, 70, gets her water from a faucet outside her house. She has no indoor toilet. If she needs to bathe, she explained, she fills a bucket with water and gives herself a sponge bath. Like the others I spoke to, she has no vehicle.
The elders complained very little. It was as if they had accepted this way of life — living in desperate conditions, largely ignored by their community and political leaders. They were used to not being taken care of.
And the few people in the community who advocated for them faced retribution, I was told. If people talked to the media, they feared they would lose their jobs. (Tribal employees and others remain anonymous in this column to protect them.)
The grandmother said she had asked for assistance from her chapter, as local communities are known. Little help came. Some people advocated for her when she fell and injured herself: They demanded that the chapter build a level ramp to her outhouse. After a hard fight, she received an uneven slab of cement that was hardly better than the dirt she had before.
Numerous other nonprofits — some from as far away as California — have donated boxes of food to the chapters. The Navajo Nation, it is widely known, has some of the highest rates of hunger in the country; with a pandemic at hand, action was clearly needed to prevent a catastrophe. Throughout the past four months, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has handed out free food at most of the 110 chapters around the reservation.
But none of the elders I spoke to had received a food donation. They lived too far away. They had no one to pick up the boxes for them.
“All in all, no one is caring for anyone. They’re just thinking about themselves,” a community worker told me.
Some elders weren’t even aware the free food deliveries were happening. They had no phone, television or computer. Their contact with the outside world came from Navajo radio stations like KTNN. Some had no contact at all.
Even people who did manage to get a food box might go hungry. Some boxes only contained apples, oranges and onions, I was told. Others contained hard foods that elderly people couldn’t eat because they so often had missing teeth. The boxes were supposed to feed people for a week, but some only held enough food for two days. Others included outdated toiletries that had expired in 2010. One source told me that she was so worried about the elders in her community, she often bought food for them out of her own pocket.
Who was responsible? Chapter officials, neglectful family members, the community and — most of all — the Navajo Nation leaders, sources said.
And so I called the leaders. The only person to respond was Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who represents seven chapters in the Northern Agency. She’s known as an advocate for senior citizens.
Crotty said she always has elders in mind, especially when looking at legislation. She asks herself, “How is this going to support our elder population?” She said she makes a point to focus on elders because she believes that the way elders are treated is a reflection of how all Diné should be treated.
Leo Taugelchee receives a hot meal from a senior center on the Navajo Nation, south of Shiprock.
Some elderly people do fall through the cracks, she said. She was working on a long-term solution — a case management system that would closely track elders’ needs. But to the best of her knowledge, food and other resources had been available to the elderly, even in remote areas.
“We had food available for families in crisis or families that are testing positive while they isolate,” Crotty said. “That would help elders with limited income, just making sure they’re not exposed. So those are some of the immediate steps that we’re doing.”
Less than 24 hours after my interview with Crotty, one of my sources called me to say she no longer wanted to be named in my story. Her supervisor had spoken to her, and she and other employees were told to refrain from talking about the food shortages, especially to the media. “We could lose our jobs,” the source said. Within the day, two community workers I’d interviewed also backed out of the story.
Repeated follow-up calls and emails to Crotty went unanswered. My calls to local chapter officials also went unanswered. Attempts to reach Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez failed.
Throughout my time as a Navajo journalist, I’ve heard many stories of Navajo officials who stonewalled reporters or intimidated people who spoke out. Navajo Nation leaders often refused to answer questions from Navajo reporters and local media (although they showed little reluctance when it came to giving quotes to national media like CNN and the New York Times).
I was aware of the frustrations. But to be shut out for a story about Navajo elders? That was something I never expected. I especially didn’t expect it during a pandemic, when protecting elders lies at the heart of a public health campaign to slow the surge of COVID-19. I didn’t expect it amid the constant messages to take care of our elders, which appear in Navajo Nation virtual town hall meetings, on Twitter, Facebook and television.
The reservation is my home. I have a deep connection and admiration for where my roots are planted. But it’s hard to ignore the darkness that coincides.
Now, when I listen to KTNN, I think of the elders I met, and wonder if they’re listening, too. I think about the little girl who survived cancer and wonder what to send her for her birthday. (She wrote the date on a slip of paper and slipped it into my hand before I departed.) Five weekends have passed since I bid the grandmother and girl farewell. And every weekend since, I’ve wondered whether they have enough to eat and whether anyone’s checked in on them. I’ve wondered if anyone else is wondering about them.
Edison Johnson steps outside his home on the Navajo Nation, south of Shiprock.
This story originally appeared in the Searchlight, a non-profit online news magazine in Santa Fe. It has been reprinted in several news outlets, including ours. We are grateful to the Searchlight for allowing us to use it, and to reporter Sunnie Clahchischiligi and to photographer Don J. Usner. Great journalism in the spirit of Pete Hamill, who died this week.
Translation provided by Dolly Manson.