At the height of the pandemic, Navajo Nation — which spans more than 27,000 square miles of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah — reported the highest per-capita deaths in the country. This devastating trend inspired a surge in action by Diné activists like 31-year-old Allie Young, who returned to her homeland to work remotely. As the founder of Protect the Sacred — a grassroots initiative that educates and empowers Navajo youth about COVID-19 — Young has been instrumental in getting members of the community vaccinated against the virus. Currently, Navajo Nation is outpacing the rest of the US in terms of vaccine rollout, setting an impressive precedent for the rest of the country.
The people of Navajo Nation face challenges that have made battling the pandemic particularly hard. "Thirty percent of our community doesn't have access to running water, and 40 percent of our community doesn't have access to electricity," Young, who also works for Los Angeles-based nonprofit Harness, told POPSUGAR. "Jonathan Nez — the president of the Navajo Nation — has been working with Navajo-owned businesses to improve the broken infrastructure and to equip more homes with electricity and running water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling folks to wash their hands for 20 seconds. It's not as easy when you don't have running water."
Moreover, indigenous families living in the Navajo nation have limited access to resources like grocery stores. "Approximately the size of West Virginia, there are very rural regions, and sometimes your neighbors are miles apart," Young explained. "There are only 13 grocery stores in total."
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling folks to wash their hands for 20 seconds. It's not as easy when you don't have running water."
In response to these challenges, people living in the Navajo Nation banded together to help each other. "The community really came together as far as mutual aid goes," Young shared. "We had to make sure that we were getting food and essentials to folks who lived in very remote areas and may have not had transportation."
"People would travel for up to two hours to the nearest grocery stores, which often were in border towns just outside the Navajo Nation," Young continued. "Unfortunately, many of the border towns tend to be very racist. We visited those communities to do our shopping and often encountered Trump supporters who didn't wear masks."
Having witnessed a demonstrated need for education and empowerment in the community, Young founded Protect the Sacred in March 2020. "We're the first peoples of this land and of this country, and we've been decimated over the centuries," she explained. "Now, we only make up about two percent of the population in our own ancestral homelands. Over time, a lot of work has been put into assimilating us and erasing our culture and languages. We've done such a great job revitalizing and preserving our ancestral knowledge. Throughout the pandemic, there was a true threat to our culture, languages, and our elders."
Young has a succinct answer as to why COVID-19 hit the Navajo Nation particularly hard. "We've been seeing that there's been a tremendous lack of funding and support for Indian Health Services, and that's why we've ended up in this situation," she said.
Young's first step to addressing the health crisis was getting information regarding COVID-19 out to her community. "I've partnered with the Community Organized Relief Effort and Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health to organize panels," she explained. "The first panel was released as a radio show through Gallup Public Radio in New Mexico. We gave people information about the vaccine and answered any questions that they had."
These panels attempt to address the unique cultural impact COVID-19 has had on the Navajo Nation. "We had a physician named Dr. [Rose] Whitehair talk about the science and the data. We also had a medicine man speak from our cultural perspective about vaccines. We just finished up our second panel, which discussed how the pandemic has affected different tribal communities across the nation in a more general sense."
Currently, Young plans to continue ensuring members of Navajo Nation have access to both COVID-19 testing sites and vaccinations. "The vaccine is something that's available to us and that we have access to," she said. "It's another way to continue to protect our elders, especially now that we're a year into the pandemic and we've seen how it's affected our community very negatively."
A master of communication, Young is now encouraging Navajo youth to tap into social media to spread the news about COVID-19 relief options. "I always tell my community that we're in some ways more fortunate and more educated than ever before," Young said. "We have access to things that our ancestors and our elders didn't have access to. So there are so many ways to get involved by simply opening up your social media account and seeing the presence of so many great organizations like Protect the Sacred. There are so many ways to get involved, there's no excuse anymore."
Interested in donating to Protect the Sacred? Head to its website. Just $46 will provide a family with their own hygiene kit, which includes bleach, hand sanitizer, protective personal equipment, and more.