[ Music ]
[Gem Shandiin Labarta:] Good afternoon, and welcome to the National Museum
of the American Indian's conversation about these changing times.
Today, our conversation is going to be focusing on the grassroots response to COVID-19
on the Navajo and Hopi Reservation.
Today, I am joined by an amazing young woman, Shandiin Herrera.
Shandiin is a citizen of the Navajo Nation.
She's a recent Duke University graduate, and is applying to law school.
She's also providing relief to some of the most vulnerable citizens on the Navajo Nation.
The Navajo Nation is one of the largest reservations in the United States,
and during these uncertain times and challenges, Shandiin has found so much encouragement
through the work that she is doing.
Her story today is just one of hundreds of thousands of Navajo stories,
which make up our country's collective COVID-19 story.
Today, we're going to explore what is happening on the ground in Navajo Nation and Hopi,
but we're also going to be looking at how these racial inequalities are impacting Navajo Nation
to having one of the highest infection rates per capita.
Today, as Shandiin and I gather, I would like to gratefully acknowledge the native people
on whose ancestral homelands we gather today, as well as the diverse
and vibrant native communities who make their home here today.
I have had the opportunity to interview Shandiin before in our NMAI's series Youth in Action,
Conversations about Our Future, where we dove deeper into the topic
of native civic engagement, and the importance of it
in rural communities, as well as urban settings.
But a lot has changed since August, when we last spoke.
So, I would like for Shandiin to introduce herself to our audience today.
Hello, [ speaking in Navajo ] Shandiin Herrera.
[ speaking in Navajo ]
My name is Shandiin Herrera.
I'm a citizen of the Navajo Nation, and I currently reside
in Monument Valley, Utah, where I am working.
I am doing a two-year fellowship with the Lead for America Hometown Fellowship,
which is an amazing organization, and helped me pave my way back home to work in my community.
[Gem Shandiin Labarta:] I'm so excited to have this opportunity to share a little bit more
of the work that you have been doing on Navajo, but how it's changed over time as well.
But to get us started, I would love for you to tell me a little bit more about the Navajo
and Hopi Family COVID-19 Relief Fund.
What is it?
[Shandiin Herrera:] Sure.
So the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID Relief Fund started back in March when our founder,
Ethel Branch, a former attorney, general of the Navajo Nation, saw the need
and took the initiative to create a GoFundMe to raise money.
So that volunteers here on Navajo and Hopi could begin purchasing two weeks' worth of food
and supplies for elders and immunocompromised,
because we saw quickly how COVID reached our nation and spread like wildfire.
And we just felt very concerned for our elders and our multi-generational households,
our immunocompromised, and how difficult it will be to get food and supplies,
especially when we are already living in a food desert.
There are only 13 grocery stores on the entire Navajo Nation,
which has a land base equivalent to West Virginia.
And so, Ethel took the initiative and started a GoFundMe.
Within two days, it had raised $50,000,
and we found ourselves super busy recruiting volunteers,
creating, you know, a hot line and e-mail.
Folks could reach out to us to request what we are calling a kinship package.
And so, we've been operating since the beginning of March, and have grown tremendously.
This is an initiative of Yee Ha’ólníi Doo,
which is a nonprofit we also helped start back in March.
And so, the goal is really to flatten the—excuse me.
The goal is to flatten the curve on the Navajo Nation and Hopi,
and help our community members stay home and stay safe, while also providing,
you know, healthy and nutritional foods.
We spend about 100 or so dollars on each kinship box,
so it is enough food to last a family two weeks.
So they don't have to travel off the reservation to do grocery shopping.
We also include cleaning supplies and PPE, and so, we're really just trying to show
up for our people in a way that is really necessary right now.
[Gem Shandiin Labarta:] Thank you for sharing that.
You know, there's a lot of information backed into that, but one thing that really stood
out to me was mentioning how, in just short amount of time, in two days,
how much money was raised, and how quickly this grassroots movement came to be.
I want to know—you talked a little bit about why there is a need for this,
but I would like to know a little bit more.
Why is there even a need for grassroots movements in this region?
This is all so wild.
It's crazy to think about.
[Shandiin Herrera:] Right, and, you know, I think that the gap that we're seeing here
on the ground is—you know, in the beginning it took a significant amount of time for,
you know, our tribal government to receive CARES Act funding.
And so, we just felt, as a leadership team, with the relief effort, there is a big need for,
you know, grassroots indigenous-led movements right now, because,
as you saw with the Navajo Nation, you know, it took a significant amount of time
for CARES Act funding to reach our nation.
And in that time, you know, we had community members who had no food, didn't have a vehicle
to go out and, you know, do grocery shopping.
Like, our people needed immediate assistance, and I think that's a really great thing
about our relief effort, is our response rate.
We had folks who would request a care package, because their family's in quarantine,
and they don't want to risk going out and exposing others.
Or they are literally on their last meal.
They don't have any supplies left, and we're able to mobilize volunteers on the ground,
sometimes even within twenty-four hours, to get that family assistance.
And so, you know, this is an effort that we're planning, and working on implementing long-term,
even past COVID, because our communities are still going to need assistance.
And more broadly, we're, you know, working on addressing other injustices in our communities
and other shortcomings, where our people really just need more guidance and assistance.
And just working all together to rebuild our community so, you know, in the future,
we're not one of the most vulnerable populations when it comes
to diseases and illnesses that come our way.
[Gem Shandiin Labarta:] Yeah, I hear a lot of talk about the future, right?
There's so many things that are uncertain in this time of COVID, of COVID-19 rolling
into 2020, and we're nearing the end of this year.
And I want to know—I would like to know a little bit more about what is the vision
for Navajo Nation and Hopi Family COVID Relief Fund.
What happens after COVID?
[Shandiin Herrera:] So, you know, we're about a good eight months
in now, and have raised over six million dollars.
Every week, we have numerous distributions going on, spending anywhere from one to $200,000
on direct relief—so purchasing food and supplies.
And so, we have definitely been busy, and have remained so, but going forward,
we're definitely thinking about how we're going to continue this work beyond COVID, and so,
thinking about transforming our distribution sites into food pantries.
Food security is a huge issue on Navajo, and though some communities do have, you know,
monthly food banks, or other ways to obtain necessary means, there is no such thing as,
you know, a soup kitchen, or a food pantry in many communities, especially rural communities
like Monument Valley, where I reside.
And so, you know, we're thinking bigger picture, and choosing food pantries,
community centers to help, you know, our community members in other ways,
whether that be providing services to help local businesses, providing a center
to access reliable broadband and wi-fi connection.
And really just, you know, bringing ideas back in, and bringing this sense of self-sufficiency
that we're working so hard to encourage within our own organization, and, you know,
even our approach to building our programs, recruiting local people,
people who know their communities best, and just introduce, you know, projects.
Right now, we have a Diné Vote Project, so we've been doing projects to get out the vote,
providing food at, you know, different early voting sites,
as well as doing voter registration, and partnering with other organizations,
like the Rural Utah Project to identify areas that, you know, more Navajos need assistance
with understanding where they need to go to vote, how to register.
And so, the past few weeks, we've also been really invested
in doing some Diné voter projects.
And so, going forward, just working on rolling out more projects in our communities.
[Gem Shandiin Labarta:] I hear a bright future for the Navajo
and Hopi Family COVID Relief Fund.
Seems that you guys are on the trajectory to really identify many of the issues,
some that have been around for such a long time, but also some of the newer issues,
and some of the more contemporary conversations that are even happening in our country today.
We do have the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are also seeing another pandemic,
another issue going on at the exact same time, and that's racial inequalities.
So what I want to know is, how has COVID-19 really highlighted
or magnified the racial inequalities on Navajo and Hopi?
[Shandiin Herrera:] Yeah, I mean, when you think about the reasons why, you know,
Navajo and Hopi have been so vulnerable during COVID-19 stems
from the systemic issues we've experienced, and the challenges
that are ongoing in our communities.
So, take water for instance.
Water security is a huge issue here.
A lot of our households don't have running water or potable water.
We still have to go to local wells to haul, and so, when you think about that,
and how important it is to wash your hands as often as possible during this pandemic,
you know, that's not possible for a lot of people on the Nation.
And if you think about why we're in this situation where water is hard
to access, it stems back to uranium mining.
Definitely in my area, Monument Valley, uranium mining was a huge thing, and there's something
like over 300 uranium mines that have not been properly cleaned up, that have sent—
you know, contaminated our water.
And so, when you think about the bridge between uranium mining and water,
and the current pandemic, you know, it all goes back to environmental racism, really.
And so, that is, like, my way of thinking and approaching the work that we're doing,
is also addressing these historical injustices that have made it so our nation, you know, is—
has been so vulnerable to COVID-19.
[Gem Shandiin Labarta:] Right.
I think it's—I think what we're seeing a lot during this time is exactly that,
these links to historical events that have brought us to this point,
where everything is just exponential at this point.
So, seeing how successful Navajo and Hopi Family COVID Relief has been with being able
to immediately be on the ground, and providing basics—PPE, food, water—
how has it become a model for other nations?
Have there been dialogue between other vulnerable communities?
[Shandiin Herrera:] Yeah, and I think that's, you know, one of the really great things
about our organization, is we're easily accessible.
Each of our volunteers and staff of Yee Ha’ólníi Doo are constantly speaking on panels
like this, having conversation, opening up dialogue to discuss the ways
in which we have been successful in our approach, but also ways, you know,
we had shortcomings and have learned from that.
And so, we're constantly sharing and updating, and also helping other organizations
who are trying to use similar things in their community, and partnering with them to,
you know, further their approach to helping their communities.
But also just utilizing our resources and our networks to put other organizations in contact
with folks we're working with, whether that be, you know, how to start a GoFundMe, how to,
you know, reach out to different businesses to look for donations, and things like that.
So I think we're definitely very transparent with our work, and definitely trying
to bridge gaps across Indian Country, and, you know,
really avoiding defaulting to working in silos.
I think we've done a really great job of that, and I think, too, just going forward,
one of the—the things we really pride ourselves
on is not just being a temporary organization or a mutual aid, but,
you know, building out beyond that.
So even within the first two or three months of, you know, starting the relief fund
and doing the direct relief effort, we were already having conversations on,
okay, what's our three-year plan?
What's our five-year plan?
You know, because these issues aren't just going to disappear, and we need to continue to work
on them diligently, but also making sure that, you know,
we're bringing in other people and other organizations.
Because, you know, the issues that we've faced are not going to be solved by one entity,
and so, just continuing to collaborate and move forward.
[Gem Shandiin Labarta:] I hear so many inspirational points being made here
on how a grassroots movement, something that starts when a problem is identified,
can transform over time, and truly become a pillar of the community.
Shandiin, I want to thank you so much today for your time.
I want to thank you for sharing these stories.
In my intro, I mentioned this is just one of hundreds of thousands of Navajo stories that add
to our country's collective story.
So thank you so much for joining me today.
Times of change are hard.
We see that they oftentimes push us to our limits.
We learn new lessons, and we're quickly reminded of old lessons learned.
As we saw today with this conversation with Shandiin, the impact of COVID-19 looks
and feels different, depending on your situation, where you live, what access you have.
Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, we see that racial inequalities and even a lack
of basic needs have magnified the hardships that all Navajo citizens are experiencing.
Through activism and collaboration,
we are seeing that grassroots movements are becoming the model in which
to support communities, and really help through this time of difficult change.
We see that uplifting voices of those
that are most silenced is crucial in the conversation of COVID-19.
It's important to hear these voices so we can assess COVID's impact.
I would like to thank NMAI's history and culture department,
as well as the Smithsonian's Twenty-Four Hours of Change Project committee
for allowing Shandiin and I to share just one of these stories today.
Thank you all, and have a great day.
[ Music ]
A conversation with Shandiin Herrera about how COVID-19 and the struggle for racial justice have affected her hometown community and about an Indigenous-led operation to aid vulnerable families.