Relief efforts for Indigenous people ‘don’t have months’

Sergeant Sharyl Chief of the Tuba City Department of Corrections unloading a truck load of canned water donated by Jason Mamoa’s water company, Mananal, to the Navajo & Hopi elders. (Photo by Deidra Peaches, Founder of Paper Rocket Productions)

Kalle Benallie

Corrected: Organizations try to do all they can to help tribal citizens during the pandemic despite the obstacles

As coronavirus cases continue to rise in the United States and Indian Country, tribal communities are diligently trying to help their members through various efforts.

Veteran organizations like the Indigenous Environmental Network say the severity of COVID-19 requires that the distribution of supplies and money be fast and efficient.

The 30-year-old nonprofit focuses on Indigenous environmental and economic justice issues, but in April it created its emergency mutual aid fund to help Indigenous people worldwide who are affected by the coronavirus.

Some of its obstacles included language barriers when it needed to coordinate payments and build trust with people requesting money.

For example, after women in Brazil sought funding, organizers held a call with translators, allowing everyone to ask questions. Welcomes, songs and prayers were done to make the conversation less about money and more about creating a trusting relationship.

“Even though we tried to streamline the process, there were still a lot of conversations that had to happen, phone calls and emails back and forth just to clarify addresses and where people were,” said Simone Senogoles, food sovereignty program coordinator of the organization.

The organization’s established relationships aided its swift response, partly due to its previous experience with the Dakota Access Pipeline.

She said organizations or crowdfunding that are not set up as foundations, or individuals who don’t have experience handling donated money and supplies, may encounter unexpected difficulties such as the time-consuming effort of forming relationships.

But in this case, it’s a matter of learning along the way.

“We don’t have months to figure out different protocols and guidelines that are comprehensive,” Senogles said.

And that’s what Ethel Branch, former Navajo Nation attorney general, and 11 other organizers had to do when they established the GoFundMe Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund, in March, with the Rural Utah Project Education Fund as their beneficiary.

The fund has accumulated nearly $5.5 million in donations with an overall goal of $7 million. It was created to help distribute food, water and supplies to Navajo and Hopi citizens. It is not part of fundraising efforts associated with both tribal governments.

The Navajo Nation has more than 7,500 confirmed coronavirus cases on the reservation, and the Hopi Tribe of Arizona has 301 as of June 30.

“We can’t wait on the government to save us, and we understand that,” said Cassandra Begay, communications lead of the relief fund.

The relief fund has aided over 8,000 households in 81 of the 110 chapters in the Navajo Nation and seven of the 12 Hopi villages, Begay said in a news release.

For safety precautions, the relief fund is operating only by drive-thru and drop-offs that are organized in small teams to limit exposure. Additionally, the relief fund collaborates with the Navajo Nation’s community health representatives who help distribute the food in accordance with protocol.

“The whole objective is to make sure that our people don’t starve out there and that they don't die from starvation,” Begay said.

The program Adopt-A-Native-Elder is also trying to raise $255,000 to continue sending its 850 elders monthly food certificates that can be used at Bashas’ grocery stores on the Navajo reservation to buy food and over-the-counter medications. Linda Myers, executive director and founder, said safety hazards prevent their normal routine of sending food boxes and medical supplies throughout the Navajo Nation.

“We are not going to be able to assist them, but we are going to assist them as much as possible,” Myers said.

One concern for the program is that some elders live in remote areas and have to travel far to grocery stores, in addition to receiving other supplies from donors.

“It is kind of hard because the elders are old, and so we can’t risk them coming out to a location to get their boxes, and we don’t want to risk them,” she said.

Myers is hopeful that she and the 120 volunteers, who participate from places around the world, including Australia and Finland, can distribute the boxes soon. But canceling their scheduled days has not been easy.

“I’ve done it for 36 years, twice a year, never miss. I know the elders are sad that I’m not coming. I get letters. I get phone calls from the family,” Myers said.

She added some of the elders are in the hospital and some have died from COVID-19. “It affects us really greatly every day to think about the fragility of them and hoping their families are keeping them safe.”

The Navajo Nation worked with Bashas’ to create a safer shopping experience for elders called “Operation First of the Month.” Between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. at the beginning of the month, when elders receive monthly benefits, they can purchase essential items. The Bashas’ on the reservation also established senior citizen hours for those 65 and older on Wednesdays from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m.

In Washington state, another relief effort quickly emerged from the Snoqualmie Casino, owned by the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe. Volunteers from the casino and tribal administration immediately began packing food from the casino’s five dining venues, and distributed the food to tribal members.

“The very first day we were closed, we were able to combine our perishable items, and we created 120 meals for the tribal elders in the community,” Stanford Lee, CEO and president of Snoqualmie Casino, said. The tribe is located 30 minutes east of Seattle.

They donated over 2,000 pounds of food to various organizations as well as thousands of medical supplies, including masks and gloves, were donated to the Swedish Issaquah Campus Hospital outside Seattle and the North Bend Snoqualmie Police Department.

“There’s a very kindred spirit when you are helping people, even though we knew that there was an uncertain time coming ahead,” Lee said. “Tomorrow it’s going to be my turn. So I’m gonna go down there and I’m gonna roll up my sleeves and help distribute the meals.”

Additionally, the casino gave 700 meals to a program for Snoqualmie Valley students who depend on school meals.

He said volunteers who offer their time and effort need encouragement because, “When so many things are outside of your control... empowering them with the ability to help others has really made a difference for us.” 

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This story has been corrected to show that the GoFundMe Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund has 11 other organizers.

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