SHIPROCK, N.M. — 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, just 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 pointed out. “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 the 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 frontline workers, such as nurses and health care staff. They hold more than 77 percent of jobs in U.S. hospitals, health care facilities and nursing homes, U.S. labor statistics show. They hold essential jobs, albeit low-paying ones, 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 like diabetes.
Navajo women not only hold high-exposure jobs but also are keepers of the cultural flame — and caretakers of the many 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,” said Navajo archaeologist Rena Martin, 67. “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 women 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 for extended family members, to meet kinship obligations.
They are carrying caskets at burial sites, typically a man’s job. They are revising the “baby’s first laugh” celebrations, dropping off salt and goodies to family and friends instead of hosting a gathering at home.
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 — a problem for roughly a third of households. Others sit with their grandchildren outside of 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 of 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 in the ceremony, held when a girl reaches puberty. 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, a vast landscape (pop. 172,875) that spans New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in America. As of Nov. 10, at least 12,641 cases have been confirmed there; 594 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. Officials have also canceled events like the Miss Navajo Nation pageant, in which contestants must butcher a sheep and cook over an open fire.
Shaandiin Parrish, the current Miss Navajo Nation, is one of the scores of women who’ve seen their roles morph in ways they never imagined. Parrish, 26, was living alone in Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo Nation’s capital, when the virus struck. She wanted to rush home to the Kayenta area to be with her family, but the reservation was on lockdown.
So she used her time to spread health safety messages on her social media platform. When travel was allowed, she drove hundreds of miles to dispense food, water and supplies to families, along with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. Dressed in full traditional attire — velvet shirt and skirt, moccasins, jewelry, a sash, crown, plus a mask and gloves — she continues to give out care packages in remote Navajo communities, from Oljato, Utah, and Chinle, Arizona, to chapters in northwest New Mexico.
Acts of love
Charles-Newton, the council delegate, is among the countless other 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 threw on her safety-approved clothing (long-sleeved T-shirt, baseball cap, pants), put on her mask, jumped in her truck and picked up cases of water to deliver to a mother and daughter in Shiprock who had no running water or electricity.
Both women are diabetic and — with no refrigerator — had to buy bags of ice every day to keep their insulin cold in plastic coolers.
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. In violation of protocols that require women and men to sweat separately, he entered the women’s sweat to look after them.
“He was very emotional,” Charles-Newton recalled. “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.’”
Caring at a cost
Acts of love, of course, can be dangerous. In late April, the Navajo Nation mourned the loss of young mother Valentina Blackhorse, 28, a former Miss Western Navajo. Her boyfriend had contracted the virus, and she’d insisted on taking care of him, the Navajo Times reported. The death of someone so young became national news. Blackhorse was described as selfless, someone who risked her life to help another.
She would not be the last. Social media and headlines announced a growing list of health care workers who’d lost their lives to COVID-19. Other women who passed away were unsung heroes — caretakers on a land of vast needs.
They’d raised sheep and goats, weaved wool, grown food and survived on lands passed down for generations, by matriarchs who came before.
On a recent evening, just as the sun eased to meet the horizon, Natalie Tome-Beyale tended to the crops on Farm Road in Shiprock. With her cell phone in a back pocket and a water bottle nearby, she plucked weeds growing around her family farm. She placed the water bottle five plants ahead of her to make sure she stayed hydrated; every time she reached the bottle, she took a sip.
In previous years, Tome-Beyale and her husband planted the farmland together, but this year she had to do the work alone. About six months ago, she nearly lost her husband, Herbert Beyale Jr., to the virus.
Farming has become an act of healing, she said. With every weed she pulled, the memories sprouted.
Tome-Beyale, 63, lost her father when she was a teenager. The eldest of her siblings, she looked after her three younger brothers and at 19 became their legal guardian. She married Herb at a young age, had five children and worked as an educational assistant. “Being a Navajo woman, the big thing was that you need to care for the people around you — they come first.”
Today, she said, this presents women with an entirely new quandary: Children are defying public health orders.
“It’s really sad, because the mom — the women — will not close the door on them. And because of that, it [the virus] comes into the home,” she said. “The love that women have for their children is sometimes their downfall.”
In May, the coronavirus found Tome-Beyale’s family. She had recently become a grandmother and was staying with her daughter in Rio Rancho to help with the baby. Just as she was preparing to return home to Shiprock, Herb tested positive for the virus. He’d been exposed at work.
Tome-Beyale immediately switched gears from looking after her daughter and granddaughter to caring for her husband from a distance.
When Herb developed trouble breathing, he was admitted to a local ICU and then flown to a hospital in Santa Fe. She raced there to see him, but all she could do was watch him get wheeled in from afar.
For three tormented weeks, Herb remained hospitalized and she wasn’t allowed to visit. She rented a hotel room nearby just to be close to him.
The weave of history
History has often changed the role of Navajo women, who’ve had a role in shaping history, as well. After the Long Walk began in 1864 — and the U.S. Army brutally removed the Diné from their homelands — women were instrumental in pushing for a return home, which was secured under an 1868 treaty.
After the return, women’s roles shifted, this time because of an influx of Christian missionaries who stressed that men — not women — needed to run the home, rule the people and control the government.
It wasn’t until 1951, when legendary public health crusader Annie Dodge Wauneka was elected to the Navajo Tribal Council, that a woman became a prominent government leader, a position Wauneka used to battle tuberculosis and other scourges. To this day, women seldom win elected office.
And while Navajo women are considered sacred, they are disproportionately victimized by violence. More than four in five Native women in the United States have experienced violence in their lifetime, studies show. On some tribal lands, women are murdered at a rate up to 10 times the national average. Navajo Nation Council delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty has spent years calling attention to the problem of missing and murdered women, pressing for solutions at home and before the U.S. Senate. Fellow Council delegate Charlaine Tso summed up the tragedy in a report to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The Navajo Nation views women as sacred. Yet Navajo women cannot safely go for a short jog in their own communities,” she said.
The sun had just set behind the famed 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. She looked to the sky, where the Holy People are said to live, and turned to prayer.
A memory suddenly 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. Her elder had been teaching her survival tools — tools to preserve the culture and protect her family.
For nearly 15 years, Hosteen had been the full-time 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, tie their 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.”