When the pandemic made its way to Navajo Nation, Allie Young found her mission.
“We’re still mourning our loved ones who should still be here. They were preventable deaths,” Young tells Yahoo Life about the many Navajos who died COVID-related deaths. “It’s about protecting what we have left. And we always say the little we have left because our people, our languages, our cultures have been decimated since first contact.”
Young was born in Navajo Nation, and moved back to stay with family during the pandemic. In March 2020, she founded “Protect the Sacred,” a grassroots initiative to educate and empower Navajo Youth, and young people throughout Indian Country.
As COVID made its way across the country, Navajo Nation (which includes land in northern Arizona, New Mexico and Utah), prepared the best it could. Members had to follow strict lockdown orders and a mask mandate was implemented. Despite their efforts, the virus continued to spread, and at the height of the pandemic, Navajo Nation had the highest per capita infection rate in the U.S.
Young says the Indian Health Service, which has long struggled with funding, struggled to keep up.
“We’re supposed to receive quality healthcare for being pushed onto reservations, but that hasn’t been the case. And the pandemic has revealed how broken the infrastructure is in our healthcare system,” says Young.
When the stimulus package was announced, the Trump administration didn’t initially include Navajo Nation. In June, a federal judged ordered the Treasury to distribute $679 million in COVID-19 relief to tribes after it was withheld for months.
“It delayed funding to tribal nations,” says Young. “That’s why we stepped in as ‘Protect the Sacred,’ and my relationship with Mark Ruffalo helped tremendously to get the word out. We started a campaign called ‘Navajo Strong,’ and released some PSAs, and calling out to medical volunteers to come to the Navajo Nation. Bringing in funding and also PPE to the reservation because there was not enough.”
One of the main missions of Protect the Sacred is to preserve the culture and language of Navajo people. With the virus disproportionally affecting older citizens, Young spread education on how to protect tribal elders. She sees their role in Navajo Nation as one that is irreplaceable.
“I do think that our cultures are in danger of being wiped out. Our elders are the culture bearers, they are the fluent language speakers, and they're the ones that we’re still learning all of this knowledge from," says Young.
Young’s family had their own scare when both of her grandparents were diagnosed with COVID-19. She says their faith and culture helped to pull them through. “For our people, it comes down to having faith, and that’s what we really had to lean into — our culture, our faith in mother earth and creator, in our medicine ways, our herbs and the way that we pray. And that’s exactly how my grandparents fought the virus.”
Both of Young’s grandparents have recovered from the virus and received the vaccine. In fact, of the 175,000 residents living in Navajo nation, more than 95,000 have already been vaccinated. The Federal Indian Health Service started supplying vaccines to tribal health providers back in December, and the rollout has been quick and overwhelmingly effective.
While hope in the form of a vaccine has arrived, Navajo Nation remains vigilant in protecting residents from COVID-19. On April 6, epidemiologists confirmed that a patient with a new variant of was confirmed in Navajo Nation.
Some local businesses have re-opened in limited capacity, but many in the community will continue to wear masks and socially distance. With families still spending time at home, Young is encouraging Navajo youth to use that time to reconnect with their grandparents.
“Learn our language. Learn simple phrases in Navajo and post that on Tik Tok or Instagram like many other young Indigenous people,” said Young. "We think about our elders and all of what our ancestors have been through for us to be here today. And then we think about our youth and future generations. I’ll do anything for my people."
Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove
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