Skip to main content

Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Faith Begay was far from her family when she lived in Washington, D.C., but her uncle’s frequent work trips there brought her comfort and joy.

After his meetings in the nation’s capital on behalf of his tribe, they would hang out together in the city.

“I would always look forward to his visits. I cherish the memories I got to have with him, and the conversations we had,” she said on Facebook.

In the early hours of June 21, Cocopah Tribal Vice Chairman Johnson Deal Begay Jr. died from COVID-19 at the Yuma Regional Medical Center in Yuma, Arizona. He is believed to be one of the first tribal leaders in the U.S. to die from the disease.

Faith Begay remembers her uncle’s dedication as a tribal leader who was committed to working on a government-to-government level with the United States. She said he met with federal lawmakers and U.S. presidents.

“He worked so hard for his family, his community and his tribal nation. He is a huge inspiration for me, and I’ve always looked up to him. He was just the kindest and sweetest guy, and the best uncle,” she said.

(Photo: Faith Begay via Facebook)

Other reaction

Cocopah Chairwoman Sherry Cordova said in a statement: “We are shocked and devastated with this unexpected news. The Cocopah Tribe has lost a great fighter for the Cocopah people.”

Begay served three terms as the tribe’s vice chairman, starting in 2014.

A member from Yuma’s Special Olympics Facebook page said they were grateful for Begay’s support and remembered his attendance at a breakfast fundraiser, Breakfast with Champions, where Begay presented a $5,000 donation.

(Photo: Special Olympics-Yuma via Facebook)

Many other tribal governments and officials offered their condolences to the Cocopah Nation and Begay’s family.

Colorado River Indian Tribes, for instance, posted: “This is a great loss to Indian country and all who knew Cocopah Tribal Vice Chairman Begay.” 

Mayor Gerardo Sanchez of San Luis, Arizona, said: “Yuma County lost a great leader. ... We here at the City of San Luis are grateful for what Vice-Chairman J. Deal Begay Jr. has done for our committee and the support he has given us. He will truly be missed. May he rest in peace.”

Mayor Gerardo Sanchez, left, with Cocopah Tribal Vice Chairman Johnson Deal Begay Jr. (Photo: Sanchez via Facebook)

And Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis shared: “Vice Chairman Begay was a devoted leader whose commitment to working on behalf of his Tribal Nation was apparent to all who knew him.”

Chairman Cordova said more information will be released soon.

“At this time, we ask for prayers and thoughts for the family and allow them the time to process this great and sudden loss,” said Jonathan Athens, director of communications for the tribe.

Begay is survived by a wife and two sons.

ICT Phone Logo

Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at


Read more Portraits from the Pandemic: