Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a story originally published by Searchlight New Mexico, a nonprofit investigative news organization. For a full version of the story, go to www.searchlightnm.org.
SHIPROCK – Sitting in the passenger seat of her husband’s pickup truck just before dusk, Eugenia Charles-Newton watched a young Navajo girl, her niece, during a traditional kinaaldá ceremony in Shiprock.
The coming-of-age ceremony was unlike any other kinaaldá she’d ever seen. Scores of family members were missing and there was only a small cake, enough to feed the immediate family.
That morning, the girl’s female relatives hadn’t gathered to sing and tell stories as they mixed the cake batter. When the girl ran toward the east before the sun rose, she didn’t have throngs of relatives running behind her to fill the dawn air with happy screams and shouts, celebrating her transition into womanhood. Only the young woman’s brothers ran after her.
It’s hard “for a girl to have a ceremony like that and not have all the family there,” Charles-Newton said. She tried to comfort her niece, a relation by clan. “Your mom could have just said, ‘No, we’re not going to have it,’ ” she said. “But instead, she made it happen.”
Women have long been front and center when it comes to making things happen on the Navajo Nation. But never has that role been so apparent – or so perilous – as during the pandemic.
Ever since coronavirus arrived on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, women in this matriarchal society have been putting themselves at risk, taking on ever more responsibilities, culturally and in everyday life.
“The sacred side of women has changed with COVID,” said Charles-Newton, 43, one of three female delegates on the Navajo Nation Council. Girls used to learn traditions through celebrations, face-to-face talks with elders and communal gatherings. But the pandemic has squelched those opportunities. “It’s taking away a part of the culture.”
By every measure – from economics and education to health – COVID-19 disproportionately harms women and girls “simply by virtue of their sex,” the United Nations has concluded. Women are more exposed to the virus because they’re more likely to be front-line workers, such as nurses and health care staffers. They hold more than 77% of jobs in U.S. hospitals, health care facilities and nursing homes, U.S. labor statistics show. They also hold essential jobs in groceries and retail stores.
On the Navajo Nation, women are even more vulnerable to the virus as a result of poor health care, poverty, trauma and high rates of illnesses such as diabetes.
Navajo women not only hold high-exposure jobs, but also are keepers of the cultural flame – and caretakers of the people around them who’ve tested positive for the virus. When they become sick or die, the whole culture suffers.
“Women are the home – they’re matriarchs, they’re mothers,” Navajo archaeologist Rena Martin said. “When people say, ‘I’m going home,’ it’s to where Mom is. If you lose a matriarch, you have no home to go to.”
The founder of Dinétahdóó Cultural Resources Management, a Navajo company dedicated to preserving tribal history, culture and lands, Martin has seen families living in some of the most remote landscapes in the Southwest. She particularly worries about the female elders – crucial to the culture – who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19.
The virus is typically more lethal for Navajo men – but that changes in the golden years, statistics show. After 70, the coronavirus death rate for Navajo women begins to accelerate. By age 80, Diné women suffer a substantially higher death rate than men.
Martin knows firsthand what the loss of an elder can do. Her maternal grandmother, matriarch to the core, boiled herbs, made medicinal drinks and carried them to families stricken with whooping cough, delivering them near and far on horseback. She succumbed to the disease when Martin’s mother was 4.
The loss left the next two generations without knowledge of their family history and teachings, Martin said. It was the need to reclaim those losses that prompted her to become an archaeologist.
“There was a loss of centeredness in the family. There was a loss of oral history.” The pandemic, she said, could leave generations of women feeling similarly at sea.
Some might feel like they’re drowning. Diné women today are juggling employment, while also cooking, cleaning, babysitting, shopping, parenting, teaching, caring for relatives and tending to the elderly.
Since March, when the reservation became one of the country’s worst hot spots, women have commonly been seen making supply runs at local stores, buying not just for the immediate family, but also for extended family members, to meet kinship obligations.
Grandmothers are helping children attend virtual classes, though most have no experience with computers. Some have set up makeshift desks in crowded houses without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. Others sit with their grandchildren outside schools and chapter houses so the kids will have internet access and can complete their homework.
Zoom won’t suffice
The Navajo are a matrilineal society: When they introduce themselves, they do so by clan, leading with their mother’s clan, which children take as their own.
Naabeehó sáanii (Navajo women) are the center of the family, the keepers of wisdom and conservators of ancestral teachings. Navajo emergence stories tell how women learned to be matriarchs from Changing Woman, a single mother of twin sons who became Diné heroes.
By tradition, the teachings are passed down in person, in the Navajo language. Zoom meetings are hardly a suitable replacement.
In the four-day kinaaldá, for example, the mother, grandmother and other female relatives have hands-on roles. The women help the girl wash, and they tie and wrap her hair. They knead her limbs to symbolically “mold” her into a strong woman. They make the alkaan (Navajo cake) and bury it in the ground to cook.
It is a level of communion that’s nearly impossible during recurring waves of contagion and the accompanying public health restrictions. The Navajo Nation, with a population of 172,875 and a vast landscape that spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in America. As of Nov. 24, at least 15,000 cases have been confirmed there; 638 people have died.
The tribal government has tried to curb transmission by issuing strict curfews, stay-at-home orders, business and travel restrictions, and limits on gatherings.
Acts of love
Charles-Newton, the council delegate, is among countless women engaged in relief work. In addition to her elected duties, she volunteers with the Northern Diné COVID-19 Relief Effort, a grassroots organization that distributes essentials to local families.
The work can get intense. In late July, before driving two hours to an emergency council meeting in Window Rock, Charles-Newton put on her mask, jumped into her truck and picked up cases of water to deliver to a mother and daughter in Shiprock who had no running water or electricity.
On other days, Charles-Newton dispenses advice. One man contacted her because he feared he’d broken tradition: His mother and sisters had tested positive and were too sick to enter the sweat lodge alone. Protocols require women and men to sweat separately, but he entered the women’s sweat to look after them.
“He was very emotional,” Charles-Newton said. “He said, ‘This is my mother; these are my sisters. These are the matriarchs, the strong ones in my family.’ ” Was it wrong to help them?
“I told him, ‘Shiyáázh [my son], what you did for your mom and your sisters is not wrong – it’s an act of love.’ ”
The sun had just set behind the Shiprock pinnacle when Gloria Hosteen, 63, took a minute for herself, sitting alone on the front porch of her double-wide trailer, facing ha’a’aah, the east – the direction that signifies birth and strength.
A memory came to her. She recalled sitting next to her paternal great-grandmother in her hogan years ago. Her great-grandmother and mother had taught her all she knew about ceremonies, herding sheep, weaving, preparing traditional foods and picking herbs.
“These things will come in handy someday,” her great-grandmother told her. That day had come, Hosteen realized.
For nearly 15 years, Hosteen had been the caretaker for her four grandchildren, ages 10 to 15. She’d felt unsure of herself, uncertain about the future of her children, her grandchildren and the Diné. Now she knew what to do.
She began teaching her granddaughters the old ways. She taught them how to tie their moccasins and sash belts, and wrap their traditional hair buns. She taught them about sweat lodges and ceremonies. She also began preparing for the kinaaldá for a young granddaughter, who she expects will have her coming-of-age ceremony before a COVID-19 vaccine arrives.
She felt as if she’d become a matriarch in the truest sense, tested by the pandemic the way matriarchs in the past were tested by ravages and despair.
“I have to be strong to challenge these barriers, so I take it one day at a time,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of Navajo women are saying the same thing.”
And on that day on the porch, she offered a prayer to the sky. “I looked up and said, ‘Thank you, Nalí. Thank you, Mom: I will do what you advised me to do.’ All these memories came back and I just had tears in my eyes. I just prayed with that and carried on.”