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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Ruth Benally lived to see four generations of her family, and she loved every moment with them.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were especially important for her because she would cook for the entire family.

“She could make the best fry bread,” said her son, Victor Benally, who lives in Ganado, Arizona. “She also was very cognizant in terms of whenever visitors would come, she would always prepare something for them.”

Ruth, Navajo, was hit hard when her grandson, Donovan Benally, an assistant pastor in Chinle, Arizona, died from COVID-19 in May, leaving behind a wife and three children. Then in July, she and another son, who acted as a caregiver for her, began to feel sick.

They were diagnosed with COVID-19 on July 12, and Ruth died about five weeks later. She was 88.

She is survived by three sons: Arthur Benally, Victor Benally and another who wants to remain anonymous; 18 grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and three great-great-grandchildren.

Victor said that her sudden passing didn’t give them time to ask her more about her life.

“We did not hear all the stories of her childhood,” he said. “From what I [heard] she was quite a runner when she was very young.”

A long life

Ruth grew up caring for the family's sheep. She was raised by her aunt, Nellie Goldtooth, who rewarded Ruth’s commitment to the flock by giving her half of her permit, which was 25 sheep.

“This was her reward for [the] dedicated and passionate help to the family,” Victor said. “Sheep was her life.”

She grew up in the canyons past Round Rock, Arizona and near the uranium mines on the Lukachukai Mountains, about 16 miles southeast of Round Rock. Victor said this is what may have made her susceptible to COVID-19.

“There [were] times in which they used to utilize a lot of the sand from the mines, she utilized a lot of the water from the nearby streams. That may have contributed to some of her breathing issues,” he said.

Additionally, Ruth may have dealt with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and previously had tuberculosis, he said.

She met her husband Edgar Benally, a World War II veteran, because they lived close to each other in Round Rock. Ruth stood out to Edgar because of her athleticism and attention to detail.

“If she saw something out of place or something needed attention, she would correct it or make it better so that it would be easier on the family,” Victor said. “That is what caught my father's attention, plus my mom was a good cook, and was fastidious in cleaning and completing chores.”

They married on Sept. 5, 1949, in a Navajo traditional ceremony at her Aunt Nellie’s hogan in Round Rock.

Two days later, they were married at a Catholic church in Lukachukai, Arizona. Edgar died in 1997; they had been married almost 50 years.

The last time Ruth saw one of her grandchildren was in February, when she showed up to support her granddaughter’s high school basketball game in Burnside, Arizona.

“As much as she supported her children, this was her last basketball game she attended as she watched her granddaughter, Abigail, and the Ganado Lady Hornets defeat the Yuma Catholic team,” Victor said.

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Ruth Benally particularly enjoyed the holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. She loved to cook for her family.

Ruth Benally particularly enjoyed the holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. She loved to cook for her family. 

Ruth Benally lived in the Round Rock area north of Chinle. She was the second member of her family to die from COVID-19 this year.

Ruth Benally lived in the Round Rock area north of Chinle. She was the second member of her family to die from COVID-19 this year. 

Unexpected illness

The illness hit in July, and the family thought at first that they had heat exhaustion.

“They did not eat for a whole week,” Victor said. “They were dehydrated, they had severe headaches, body aches, they had trouble breathing and they also had a high fever.”

And they could not taste or smell anything.

They were diagnosed July 12 with COVID-19. The family thinks that Ruth may have been infected through the air, because the brother was very cautious about sanitizing the house, wearing a mask and keeping her isolated.

The only places their brother went was to the Round Rock chapter house, laundromat, gas station and occasionally the grocery store.

“It’s a vicious virus,” Victor said. “It was very, very difficult just knowing that my brother protected her so much and still somehow the virus got through.”

The fever and other symptoms finally eased up, but by then, her lungs were damaged and she was moved into the intensive care unit at Chinle IHS Hospital in Arizona.

Visitors were restricted but most of her grandchildren were able to visit her briefly in the hospital.

Their brother recovered after a few weeks but Ruth died Aug. 17 in the Chinle hospital.

“It was a little bit unexpected, we were expecting her to be around a little bit longer and we were making plans on who would be there,” Victor said.

He said he will always remember her as a dutiful mother and loving person.

“She was a loving mother, she was a caring Christian, she loved her husband when he was here, loved her family and she will be missed,” he said. 

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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

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