The phrase “Dikos Ntsaaígíí-19” is often used when speaking about COVID-19 within the Navajo Nation. It means “big cough” or “cough that kills” in the Navajo language Diné Bizaad. Unfortunately, the Navajo people have been disproportionality affected by the deadly virus since the first case was confirmed on the tribal land on March 17, 2020. Navajo Nation has the most confirmed cases of the coronavirus per capita in the United States. As of May 17, after rigorous testing facilitated by the Navajo Nation leadership, there are 4,002 positive cases and more than 18,380 negative cases. There have also been 140 deaths.
The Navajo Nation is the largest tribe in the U.S. Its territory spans New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. The more than 27,000 square acres or 16 million acres belonging to the Navajo are approximately the size of West Virginia, or the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined.
Approximately 170,000 people live within the borders of the Navajo tribal land, which holds rural and remote communities located off road systems. One third of its residents don’t have running water or electricity in their homes. Many also lack access to broadband or strong cellular service. Further, the Navajo Nation is considered a food desert. Only 13 grocery stores can be found in the vast territory, creating a severe deficiency of fresh produce and whole foods. Often times Navajo go to border towns off the reservation to do their shopping. But those towns have restricted travel due to the rapid spread of the virus, cutting thousands of people off from accessing stores for food and water.
Service-minded individuals and public health organizations are assisting the Navajo Nation during this time. Some are new arrivals, while others have worked with the Navajo people for years and now have to adjust their methods in order to keep meeting needs.
Mylon Medley, assistant director for the North American Division communication department, spoke to Pedro Ojeda, principal of Holbrook Indian School, an Adventist boarding school in a border town of the Navajo Nation, and Nancy Crosby, native ministries director for the Pacific Union who also works for the Nevada-Utah Conference. Both discussed the realities of serving this marginalized nation within a nation.
Medley: How long have you been principal at Holbrook Indian School?
Ojeda: Eight years.
Is the school located within Navajo Nation, or is located in a border town?
It’s located in the city of Holbrook, Arizona, which is 18 miles from the reservation. Most of our students are from the reservation. We have a remote campus that is located on the reservation in Chinle, which is one of five agencies, or regional areas, that make up the Navajo Nation.
What grades are offered, and how many students did you have this school year?
This is a boarding school for students grades one through 12. We have 11 teachers on our main campus, and one in Chinle. We’re the only school like this operated within the North American Division. We aim to be a safe haven for children, that’s why we start with first grade.
Since the school has been around for nearly 75 years, students come to us by word of mouth. Tuition is $14,000, but families only have to pay $85. The rest is covered by our generous donors.
This year, we started off with 66 students and ended up with 59. There are also nine students who attend the remote school in Chinle. Losing a few students is normal either for discipline issues, or they simply chose to leave. We typically have up to 80 students. I’m not sure what caused the enrollment decrease.
Let’s talk about the coronavirus. When did the effects of the virus start to become a reality for your community and the Navajo Nation?
Buzz started on campus during the second week of March. Students started using the word “coronavirus.” News about it escalated quickly during that week. We held a special assembly that Friday, March 13. Spring break was about to begin for us. We told the students we heard of some school closings but decided to remain open. What we understood at the time was that if anyone among us wasn’t compromised we would be OK. We’d take precautions, but would remain open.
By the end of spring break, however, the state had closed all schools — public and private. Initially, the closure was only until April 30, so we were moving forward with plans to reopen at that time, but then cases in the Navajo Nation started to spike.
Has your school been able to transition to distance learning? If so, how is it going?
Our teachers got together the week after our spring break to come up with a plan. That Thursday, they mailed out the first of what would become a weekly packet of lessons and homework for the students to complete. Each packet contains a return envelope for the students to mail back their work without needing to pay postage.
Teachers have also surveyed the students to see if they have access to Internet and devices that would allow them to get on the Internet. All of our students have Internet, and all but 12 had devices to go online. Thankfully, we were able to provide devices for those students. Our teachers are reaching out to the students on a regular basis. Elementary teachers call or text their students daily.
Some students are keeping up with their studies, but around 40 percent are not. Of those students, most are in high school. Some have lost motivation to continue. Others have heard stories of other schools in different parts of the country becoming extremely lax with their grading. So, they feel, “What’s the point in trying?”
Others are also dealing with a stressful home life. Teachers have heard stories from some students saying they do not want to be home and would rather be at school. We have not been receiving work from one of our top students, but we know things with her family are unstable. The family does not have a permanent place to live. They bounce around from relative to relative across the reservation and the state of Arizona.
How are the teachers handling this significant adjustment?
They miss the kids and deeply care about them. The regular communication helps, but it’s not the same. They’re also sad about the students who have not turned in their work. I miss seeing the students and having them drop by my office.
I asked the physical education teacher to come up with outdoor games the teachers can do while maintaining social distancing. We’ve been performing these activities Monday-Thursday every week since March 16. It’s been really helpful with boosting morale.
We’re in a period of great uncertainty. We’re discussing how we’ll grade for the remainder of the school year. We’re also thinking about what the next school year will look like. Will we still be able to operate as a boarding school? Will we need to decrease class sizes? We just don’t know. All we can do is wait.
Have any teachers or students tested positive for COVID-19? Or any of their relatives?
Three of our students have it — two elementary students and one eighth grader. A few of our students’ relatives also have it.
How has your faith sustained you during this time?
Faith plays an integral role in helping me navigate this. We often sing the hymn, “We Have this Hope.” Without the hope we have in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, the only recourse would be anxiety, overreaction, and consternation.
This time has made me analyze how much I’m in love with the things of this world. This is the first time in my life my comfort has been challenged and my activity has been restricted. I’m still working. My load hasn’t changed, but what I do throughout the day is different.
I’ve realized a lot of what I love to do is entertainment-based. I’ve decided to refocus and increase my efforts of spreading the gospel.
I’ve heard many advocates say they don’t agree with the mindset of wanting to “get back to normal.” They say “normal” was not working. They prefer to say they want to “get back to better.” If that’s something you agree with, what would be a “better” you’d like for your students?
I know for myself, and especially for the students, I hope we all realize how much we’re depending on our routines and taking things for granted. Who could’ve thought we’d have a hard time finding toilet paper, sheltering in place, or watching family members pass away from this type of disease? We have to understand that things will not go back to “normal.”
This should prompt us to remember the hope we have in God. We’ve been introducing the students to Jesus as someone who can be their best friend. I hope they’ll take that a bit more seriously now.
Medley: When did you begin your work with the Navajo?
Crosby: Interestingly enough, my family took a cross-country drive in 2012 to the Grand Canyon during the summer before my oldest daughter started college. I remember driving through the Navajo tribal lands and being shocked at the conditions. I thought, If God were to call us to minister here, I would come.
Fast forward to nearly six years ago. My husband was called to serve as pastor for the Page Seventh-day Adventist Church in Page, Arizona, a border town of the Navajo Nation. The church was formed in 2012 as a result of a 13th Sabbath Offering with the goal of ministering to the Navajo. We also serve missions on the reservation in the Chinle, Window Rock, and Kayenta agencies.
Our membership numbers vary. We have anywhere from 12 to 50 people who regularly attend the church in Page, and about 35 members in Kayenta. However, our membership is not solely- based on baptism. Many people who come aren’t “there” yet. We base it on making connections and inspiring hope.
I became Native Ministries director for the Pacific Union Conference in 2016. It is a volunteer position. Through my work for the union, I became familiar with the Navajo Mission ministry of the Nevada-Utah Conference. As I got more involved in their mission, I officially joined the conference part-time in 2018. Even though we live in Arizona, we’re only nine miles away from the Utah border.
Describe your ministry with the Navajo.
There is a great need for education. I was once the president of the local food bank in town. People would come week after week for food, but I wondered if we were really changing their lives? Were we really making an impact?
In 2017, the local government granted my husband’s request to turn a spare parking lot into a greenhouse in hopes of starting a “Seeds for Life” community garden. We recognized the nearest nursey was 150 miles away and we wanted to give community members a chance to learn more about growing their own food. An endowment from the Pacific Union Conference for creative evangelism helped us with initial funding. Then a woman in her mid-80s gave us a check for $3,000, which was all of her savings. The garden has been 100 percent supported by donors. The same woman gave us a check for $150 earlier this month.
The community garden has broccoli, cauliflower, kale, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, onions, spinach, and beets, as well as a variety of herbs, including cilantro, basil, and parsley. We only charge customers a small fee for the produce.
With the scarcity of grocery stores, the bare shelves inside them, and the lockdown of border towns where the Navajo do their shopping, leaders have emphasized the need to be self-sufficient by growing their own food like their ancestors, who were stewards of this land. Hearing this makes me say, “Thank you, Jesus!” We’re so happy to have this greenhouse offering seeds, fresh produce, and herbs at a time the Navajo are challenged to "return to their roots." This has opened up a bigger opportunity of outreach. A prominent local official told me, “Your church is going to be the only church that will be around after the pandemic because of what you’re doing.”
How has access to the garden changed?
The garden is open. We’re still growing but we don’t have as much activity as we did this time last year. I think people have a fear of venturing out. Nearly 10 people come a week.
Have any of your members been diagnosed with COVID-19?
At least six adults at this time as well as some children. My husband just had prayer over the phone with a member who has the virus and is worried about her other family members who also have it. We also learned of another member whose brother died from the coronavirus disease.
On a positive note, one member was just released home after spending over a week in the intensive care unit.
The conditions facing the people you serve are heartbreaking, and working to meet those needs could be exhausting. What keeps you going?
One of the biggest things that’s helped me is knowing that Jesus was willing to leave heaven for me. There are times being here isn’t easy. The airport is far away. Shopping aside from Wal-Mart is far. It’s really isolating. After a while those things wear on you. I remember reading in The Desire of Ages that Jesus didn’t want to be in heaven while we were lost. He is a great example of wanting to serve. When I see people who need a shower, a ride home, or food to eat, I think about Jesus and what He said about “the least of these.”
Sometimes it is a struggle. I may be tired when someone asks for a ride home, but I tell them, “I thank Jesus I can do this for you.”