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Diné Women Again Rise To Fight An Outbreak

Dził Asdzáán (Mountain Woman) Command Center and physicians are latest in line of women to lead response to a pandemic in Navajo Nation.



Amy Yeung (right) and Chenoa Bah in front of a map of Navajo Nation. The women are part of a collective effort to provide PPE and other needs for community members of the Nation during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Stephanie Cameron/ Courtesy of Edible New Mexico)

After leaving her job as a fashion industry designer and consultant a few years ago, Amy Yeung set out from Southern California for a new life, guided by new principles, in her ancestral Diné (Navajo) homeland in New Mexico.

Yeung was able to connect on a deeper level with her traditions and the land — waking up at dawn, receiving wisdom from her ancestors on a daily basis, and shifting her lifestyle from a careerist orientation to one more centered on bringing together her love of creating art and clothing with her goal of uplifting her community in a sustainable way.

Through her upcycle-based clothing brand, Orenda Tribe, she began to provide a platform for Native creators to amplify their work and voices, while also giving them a foundation to potentially launch careers, with the label’s 53,000 Instagram followers and Yeung’s extensive industry connections.

And then the pandemic struck.

“The pandemic has simplified my life,” Yeung said in a video call with Direct Relief. “It has really clarified that my life is a life of service.”

In the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States, Yeung founded the Dził Asdzáán (Mountain Woman) Command Center, a group of women who are working together to source and distribute critical supplies like protective equipment, as well as food and shelter for those in need. The Diné reservation only has 13 grocery stores for about 180,000 people. A 2014 study found that over 76% of Navajo Nation households faced food insecurity.

“It’s up to us. We are the people who are here now and it’s up to every human being to be part of the solution,” Yeung said.

For Command Center member Dr. Michelle Tom, a Diné physician and former Arizona State University basketball player who grew up in Navajo Nation, the pandemic magnified pre-existing healthcare issues, leading her and many in her community to draw upon stores of resilience and creativity to make do.

Dr. Michelle Tom, who has been treating coronavirus cases for up to six days er week. (Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Jade Begay of NDN Collective)
Dr. Michelle Tom, who has been treating patients with coronavirus for up to six days per week. (Photo courtesy of Jade Begay/NDN Collective)

“Navajo Nation only has 25 ICU beds. That’s insane. One hospital in Phoenix has 25 ICU beds,” Tom said. “This pandemic has just shown, in bright Vegas lights, what we don’t have,” she said. “For us as Native people, it’s the inadequacy of funding. I grew up in this, I grew up on the Rez. I didn’t have the most up-to-date books and great teachers are in the city… Staffing, access to health, we just don’t have that. They’re driving an hour just to see us,” she said.

Tom and the Winslow Indian Healthcare Center, where she works, partnered with United Natives to find new ways to address the needs of their community amid the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, Tom was treating coronavirus patients six days a week for months, averaging six to seven new patients a day during the peak, she said. She would have to transfer patients to hospitals on a daily basis so they could get ICU-level care, even as Arizona’s ICU capacity exceeded 90% at times during June and July.

“Like elsewhere throughout the country, we were trying to manage,” Tom said, adding that case counts have lowered to about three to four new patients per day. The CDC reported that Covid-19 rates among American Indian and Alaska Natives are 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic whites. Navajo Nation’s Department of Health has confirmed at least 9,830 cases and at least 503 Covid-19 deaths, along with more than 80,000 negative tests.

The virus is thought to have spread so widely in Navajo Nation due to the prevalence of multi-generational homes, a lack of running water — NBC News reported an estimated 30% of homes are without — and other basic infrastructure, as well as heightened rates of co-morbidities like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

In the Tradition of Annie Dodge Wauneka

The Dził Asdzáán Command Center is the latest example of Diné women in the United States responding to a public health crisis. In 1918, Spanish Flu ravaged the Diné community as well as other Native tribes — a situation exacerbated by the fact that many Native children were forced to go to assimilationist boarding schools, from which they would return and further spread the virus.

It was during this influenza outbreak, just one of many to strike the Nation, that Navajo Nation leader, National Women’s Hall of Fame member, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Annie Dodge Wauneka developed her interest in public health and medicine, when she helped care for sick boarding school classmates and faculty members.

Wauneka went on to travel throughout her lands and share best practices for public health, such as food preparation safety, and attempted to create a way for traditional medicine to exist alongside modern methods. She also worked to improve clean water access, among other initiatives. In 1951, amidst a tuberculosis outbreak, she became the second woman elected to the Navajo Tribal Council. The following year, the average annual risk of tuberculosis infection in Navajo Nation was 9%, leading it to become one of the leading causes of death at the time, according to a 1989 CDC report.

Essential supplies are unloaded for distribution to the Nation. (Nate Lemuel/Darklisted Photography)
Essential supplies are unloaded for distribution to the Nation by Janene Yazzie, CEO of Sixth World Solutions and member of the Command Center. (Nate Lemuel/Darklisted Photography)

Through her implementation of a tuberculosis eradication campaign, as well as having English medical terms translated to the Navajo language, Wauneka played a key role in helping mitigate the impact of the disease, which also began to be fought with the drug Isoniazid at that time. By 1957, tuberculosis mortality had dropped by 40% and the annual risk of infection was 2.6%.

Combatting Unseen Foes

As Navajo Nation turns the corner on the first wave, both Yeung and Tom said that losses from the past months have been severe, even as they are planning for a second wave.

“We lost a lot of precious elders, who are the holders of our language, our culture, everything that gets passed on,” Yeung said. “It’s not the first time there has been a pandemic in Navajo Nation and it brings up intergenerational trauma and fear, because this has happened before.”

“In the early day of the pandemic, I think every physician and nurse that was caring for these patients… it’s traumatic. Because at first, you’re afraid. Usually, as a doctor you’re not afraid, usually your own health won’t be endangered and this was different,” Tom said.

Yeung has been working on initiatives to help address mental health issues, especially for kids. “I’m a mom, I’m a protector, I’m concerned,” she said. Her immediate plans are to focus on ways to keep kids active with mountain bikes and tablets with wellness activities loaded onto them.

Since the pandemic began, Dził Asdzáán Command Center has been able to source PPE, medical supplies, and food, having raised $1 million of in-kind donations and $600,000 in cash, including 47,000 care kits for children, which contain food, reusable masks, hand sanitizer, and activity books.

Direct Relief supported the Dził Asdzáán Command Center’s work after being put in touch via CORE. Recording artist Jewel was familiar with the group and contacted Sean Penn’s CORE nonprofit, asking about available PPE and medical supplies.

CORE then introduced the Command Center to Direct Relief, which was able to supply 210,000 surgical masks to local school districts, 40,000 surgical masks to the Diné Hatathlie Association, and 4 four pallets of PPE to Dr. Tom and United Natives. The supplies were driven from Santa Barbara by emergency response team member Chris Alleway, who hand-delivered them.

Since the pandemic began, Direct Relief has delivered $343,000 worth of supplies including PPE, oximeters, oxygen concentrators, disinfecting products, ICU medications, and other essential items to 16 recipients in Navajo Nation.

Direct Relief emergency response team member Chris Alleway unloading supplies in Navajo Nation. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Michelle Tom)
Direct Relief emergency response team member Chris Alleway unloading supplies in Navajo Nation. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Michelle Tom)

Tom said that while things have calmed down — even as a daily curfew remains in effect from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. as well as a 32-hour weekend lockdown – concerns remain about the future.

“We know the Fall is going to hit hard. We’re all bracing ourselves for that,” she said. “We’re still continuing to hand out masks, face shields, and sanitizer and still saying it’s not over. The message is still the same, and we don’t want to let up.”

“But, I’m sleeping a little bit better these days. I’m not so sad anymore,” she said.

Even as Tom and Yeung cast a wary eye to the coming months, they remain steadfast that they, and their community, will fight and fight well.

“Our people are so strong. They’re going to come back from this, we always do,” Yeung said. “We’re still here.”

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