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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Rena Ann George was the matriarch of the family, someone who fully committed herself to her family, which included her 16 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

“She loved each and every one of them. She helped us to raise our children as well, and they remember her by that,” her daughter Mona Seamon said. “No matter how she felt, or tired, whatever, she would get up and feed a whole house full of people. She was just that way, just [an] amazing heart.”

Her love extended beyond her family by providing food, comfort and clothing to those who needed it most.

“Sometimes our classmates and friends needed help, and we would bring them home and mom would help,” she said.

She died from COVID-19 complications on February 14, 2021. She was 75 years old.

Rena, Navajo, was born in Lukachukai, Arizona, and raised by her paternal grandmother Margaret B. Harvey due to her mother being too ill with tuberculosis to take care of her many children.

She attended the Fort Wingate boarding school in New Mexico and later attended the Intermountain Indian School in Utah.

She met her future husband Herbert George in California at a gathering for a Native American Church ceremony, which she was a lifelong member of, as well as the Catholic Church.

They married on May 12, 1967 and later resided in the Fingerpoint area of Teesto, Arizona. They had three children: Mona Seamon, Berlyn and Bert. She was also a step-mother to a daughter named Tina and helped raise a grandson. In 1984, the family was moved to Winslow, Arizona, due to the Hopi-Navajo Relocation Act.

Rena helped support her family through creative endeavors like making her own jewelry from turquoise, coral and natural stones. She also made ojo de dios, a spiritual and votive object made out of a weaving design from yarn on a wooden cross, in Navajo designs. She traveled across the country and gained numerous friends that she did business with.

“She always told them a little about her culture, and her traditions in Navajo and told stories about her jewelry and what they meant and things like that, just different designs whether it’s a Navajo basket design,” Mona said.

‘We prayed, prayed, prayed...’

Everything was normal in the new year with Rena still managing her husband’s doctor appointments, keeping things very organized and having a clean home.

Then around the second week of January, Rena and her husband received the first dose of the vaccine, with both experiencing symptoms like a runny nose and headaches. George got better, but Rena’s health declined.

On Jan. 18, Rena was still finding it hard to breathe and went to the Winslow Indian Health Care Center in Winslow, Arizona.

“By the time they got her there, they said that it’s a good thing you brought her in when you did because she could’ve passed out with no oxygen,” Mona said.

Rena was immediately airlifted about 190 miles northwest to Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, Arizona. She initially tested negative for COVID-19 in Winslow, but the center informed the family that they have to treat her like she’s positive because of her symptoms. She tested positive a couple days later.

Mona said they don’t know how her mom was infected; no one in their family tested positive.

The last thing Rena told Mona was to fulfill her many responsibilities while she was away –– an example of her disciplined personality.

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“Take care of your dad. Take care of the bills. This is what’s due,” she told Mona.

Mona received a call on Feb. 8 from the doctor that her mom agreed to be intubated, which Mona wanted to talk with her mom first. But it was already done.

On Feb. 13, the nurses told Mona that it was time to visit her mom soon. Mona brought her sister and the family along for a video call.

“[We] talked to her, sang to her, we had her brothers and sisters call,” Mona said. “We prayed, prayed, prayed, prayed so hard.”

After spending hours with her mom, they left and Rena died within 40 minutes.

Her dad was fully vaccinated approximately a week later.

Mona said she’ll always remember her mom’s loving nature like holding her hands and telling her daughter she had pretty skin and needed to protect her face.

“The best memory is just being herself, being at home, always being there for us,” she said. “Very sincere. Everything she said or did was out of love. She was never fake.”

A family impacted

The loss of Rena to COVID-19 was unfortunately not the family’s only experience.

Mona’s uncle Stacey Gishel was the first to die from the coronavirus in June last year. Rena’s sister Alice Roanhorse died from the coronavirus in July last year. Mona’s cousin Irene Frank, who they regarded as a sister, died from the coronavirus in August 2020. Her father’s brother Ross D. Nez died from the coronavirus in November.

“The most difficult part was that they passed alone,” Mona said. “We couldn’t see them, we couldn’t be with them. Yes, we had some video, but it wasn’t the same.”

Photo of Irene Frank in the 1980s. She was from Teesto, Arizona and later relocated to Glendale, Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Mona Seamon)
Photo of Mary Alice Harvey-Roanhorse, who was Rena’s older sister. (Photo courtesy of Valerie Roanhorse)

Irene was described as a genuine and honest person, who is survived by her son and husband.

“She was one I always turned to for any kind of help,” Mona said.

She fondly remembers her aunt Alice Roanhorse greeting her warmly every time they saw each other.

“Very beautiful, mind and heart. She was creative, too, just like my mom, did the same type of jewelry, same type of artwork,” Mona said.

She said the many losses in her family to the COVID-19 is “senseless. It’s such a tremendous, tremendous loss.”

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