'Nana' of eight was full of vigor

Helen Nez, Navajo, died on June 8, 2020 from COVID-19 complications. She was 80 years old. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Pinkard)

Kalle Benallie

PORTRAITS FROM THE PANDEMIC

Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today 

Helen Nez loved going to powwows. She always did her hair and makeup, and put on her jewelry and a nice dress.

Nez’s granddaughter Kayla Pinkard remembers those moments well.

“She’d drag me along and put me in all the jewelry and stuff when I was little,” Pinkard said. “It kind of bothered me because the belt was really tight. But looking back it was definitely something I wished I could have done more with her.”

Nez, Navajo, died on June 8 at the age of 80 from COVID-19 complications. She is survived by her three children: Melissa Nez, Melvina Begay and Michael Nez.

She was known as “nana” to her eight grandchildren and attended every graduation and birthday that she could.

“She always made an effort to make us feel special,” Pinkard said. “She was very supportive, she’s probably one of the most supportive that was in my family to me.”

Pinkard said at a young age Nez was taken off the reservation and went to school in California. She stayed there for college and studied nursing. When Nez returned, she wanted to go back to her roots and pass on the traditions to her children and grandchildren.

“When I was younger, she took me to powwows, she dressed me up, we had my kinaaldá and certain ceremonies when things weren’t going well,” Pinkard said. “It was very obvious she really wanted to instill the traditions in us.”

When the pandemic hit, Pinkard lost her job and struggled to find adequate hours for another job. Nez offered to pray for her and have a medicine man do the same.

“If one of us would be having financial difficulties, she would be the one to help us,” she said.

Nez lived near Sanders, Arizona, and retired a few years ago as a nurse at the Winslow Campus of Care retirement home. Pinkard said her grandmother inspired her mom, Melissa, to be a nurse, who also works at the same retirement home.

And for her entire 26-year-old life, Pinkard remembers her grandmother’s energetic nature and working as cattle rancher.

“What was really hard about losing her because of the fact that she was so active. She was 80, but we really thought we [would] still have her for quite a while. The idea of losing her wasn’t anywhere in our minds,” she said.

Pinkard said nana was always determined and straightforward with her life.

“She always had a goal, she wanted to do weaving. She always had this idea like ‘I want to do this’ and go buy the supplies to do it,” she said. 

Helen Nez (far left) with her family. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Pinkard)
Helen Nez (far left) with her family. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Pinkard)

Pinkard said her grandmother originally told them she got sick from a community cattle ranch that everyone uses to take care of each other’s animals. There, she gave a ride to two women but asked if they were OK before agreeing to drive them.

But shortly thereafter, Nez was notified that one of the women was in the hospital and that she needed to get tested. Nez told her family that it would take a few days to receive confirmation.

“We kept calling her and asking her how she was feeling,” Pinkard said. “She said she was feeling fine. I don’t think she was telling us the truth because she didn’t want us to come over.”

Then when it came time to have the results back, the family couldn’t get a hold of Nez. The family called an ambulance and Nez was taken to a hospital.

Pinkard, her mom and brother went to the hospital in Gallup, New Mexico, and were told Nez wasn’t going to make it. The family decided Pinkard would see Nez as the hospital initially said only one family member was allowed in the room.

She was put in a gown and face mask to reunite with her grandmother.

“I went in there to see her and she wasn’t really conscious,” Pinkard said. “You could tell it was hard for her to breathe and she couldn’t really talk because they had the air going through her nose,”

She said the first thing her nana asked was if the dogs, sheep and cattle were being cared for.

“She just loved taking care of them so much,” Pinkard said.

Her visit with nana lasted about six hours until the hospital allowed her mom and brother to visit Nez separately. Nez stayed in the hospital for three days and was transferred to comfort care where she died.

“This could happen to anyone,” Pinkard said. “It could take your loved ones away so fast, faster than you even could expect. I just wish people would be more careful.”

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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 kbenallie@indiancountrytoday.com. Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas. 

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