Labor of love: Navajo isolation puts the focus on food, water and companionship

Program takes purchased and donated food, water and firewood to elders and the sick living on the Navajo reservation inside Utah

ANETH, San Juan County — It was one of those conversations that most people would try to escape as soon as possible.

In the shade of a tree that cooled the desert heat to an almost comfortable temperature, the conversation started with a thank you and meandered into a narrative about the hogan where Marie Yazzie married her late husband. It was peppered sporadically with the accomplishments of her children, including where they currently reside, which ones have children and why she hates the dogs roaming her yard.

Sahar Khadjenoury is about two-thirds of the way through a frenetic day, crammed with obligations, most of them for strangers. But instead of the distracted obligation that would normally mark being trapped in someone else’s oral family history, Khadjenoury exudes gratitude.

She offers the kind of attention and affection that encourages even more detailed confessions from the small, well-dressed woman who sprinkles thank yous throughout a description of time and loved ones she doesn’t get to see since the COVID-19 outbreak forced many, including her, to become shut-ins.

The woman clearly wants to touch the young woman who just muscled a box of food from her dusty car into the arms of a man who disappeared into the small, neatly kept house.

She reaches for her more than once, but Khadjenoury smiles, though most of it is obscured by a mask, and speaks with familiarity to the woman she’s just met as she moves out of reach.

It is an unchoreographed waltz that is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

If there is one particularly cruel aspect of COVID-19, it’s the isolation.

“I am a hugger,” Khadjenoury says as she prepares boxes of food to take to elderly, sick or self-quarantined members of her community on the Navajo reservation in southeastern Utah as part of the Utah Navajo Health System’s COVID-19 Relief program.

“Sometimes when we go to a senior’s house, and they’re so happy that we came, they just want to talk for a moment. They want to connect. I’m so sad because I can’t hug them, or let them hug me, for their safety. ... I think COVID has kind of changed the way we interact with people, with the way we even express our gratitude. It’s a very isolating virus.”

Pete Sands, Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief program project manager, chats with Mary Lou Clark after delivering food to her outside of her home in Halchita, San Juan County, on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Rising to help their own

The project grew out of an already existing effort by Khadjenoury’s friend and colleague, Pete Sands, to help some in the community with firewood. 

Officially, Sands is the Utah Navajo Health System’s public relations specialist. But for the foreseeable future, he’s the coordinator of the health system’s COVID-19 Relief program. Khadjenoury organizes the list of names they deliver to each day, keeping track of which ones are new and which ones have tested positive for the new coronavirus that has ravaged the Navajo Nation.

“It is programs that are helping people, not the government,” Sands said. “People are helping people. We have to go back to the way of life where, if something were to happen, we have to be prepared for it.”

Sands grew up in Montezuma Creek, graduating from Whitehorse High School where he played football, wrestled and harbored a secret passion for writing. 

“When I got to college, I couldn’t avoid it,” he said of taking poetry and screenwriting classes at Weber State University. “I was supposed to become a lawyer, and when I got to law school the first day of class, the fire wasn’t there.”

Instead, he picked up small parts in films and began writing and performing music. He eventually landed a part in the Paramount series “Yellowstone,” and he began to think about making his own movies. He was in the middle of that when he returned home, only to have all film projects canceled by the pandemic that trapped him in the very place it seems he needed to be.

He’d accepted a job with Utah Navajo Health Systems, but instead of writing press releases and promoting the unique role the system plays in offering health care to members of the Navajo tribe living in Utah, as well as some other companies in the state’s southeast corner, he is trying to find ways to help those cut off from food, water and firewood because of age, disability or exposure to the virus.

His efforts provide more than a few cans of food, bags of flour or tins of coffee. Sands, Khadjenoury, and their small but capable network of volunteers deliver hope to people who feel forgotten or discarded.

“It is going to help us a lot,” said Hilda Hatathle, a swarm of great-grandchildren and dogs surrounding her as she enjoys the view from a shade tree in her yard atop a butte. “We need it.”

When asked what they need most, she sighs.

“A lot. But we appreciate what they bring us.”

Hatathle’s granddaughter, Makayla Miller, was temporarily laid off from her job in Arizona, so she returned to Aneth to stay with her parents and grandparents until school resumes or she can work.

Miller misses “perishable foods” and reliable internet and cell service, but she said it is not a hardship to stay in the collection of small homes, all occupied by relatives of some kind.

“It’s nice spending time with my grandparents,” she said. “I enjoy being here. It’s not really a hard thing to do.”

Pete Sands, Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief program project manager, looks for an elder who isn’t home as he delivers food near Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. It’s not unusual for Sands and his team to drive hours to a remote location and either struggle to find the elder’s home due to lack of street addresses or find the home with nobody around to confirm if it’s where they should leave the food. It’s a time-consuming process, but one that Sands and his team are dedicated to. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Easing hardships

Two days earlier, the pair hands out food at the Montezuma Creek office, then they chop a load of firewood and fill two cars with bags of groceries and bottles of water and hit the road for the day. They drive an hour before the first stop, a small house just off the highway that belongs to Harlin Harrison, who is 92 and napping when they arrive.

His daughter, Rosemarie Redhouse, who came back to the house where she grew up to care for her parents about five years ago, stands on the porch in a mask, joyfully chatting with the strangers as they deliver groceries she said will last them about a week.

“It’s scary,” she said of the COVID-19 outbreak. “It’s so scary. We don’t go anywhere unless we need to.”

The delivery of supplies is both a relief and a show of love from their community.

“It’s so nice,” she said. “I’m surprised. ... It’s like, wow. ... It’s very helpful.”

She said they’ve had food one other time from a fire department. While Sands and Khadjenoury set a bag of groceries and bottles of water on the porch, she talks with Lorissa Jackson, who is guiding the younger people to the homes of those who need assistance. They have friends in common, and they part with best wishes for each other.

After Harrison’s home, the drives become longer, more rugged, and the people more reluctant to talk with visitors.

After directing Sands to a spot where he can leave the groceries and water, a woman Rachel talks with visitors through a partially open door. 

She lives next door to her 90-year-old mother, who is out caring for her herd of goats that morning.

“We have to be really careful,” Rachel said of opening their home to visitors, “especially when people just drive up.”

Without running water or electricity, Rachel has to clean everything that comes into her mom’s house. She travels daily to the grocery store to get a block of ice so she can store meat and dairy products.

The work to keep her 91-year-old mother’s home free from COVID-19 is exhausting, although she does have help from her sister.

Rachel is tired.

She is tired of the curfew and weekend lockdowns. She’s tired of waiting hours to fill tanks with water, and making trips to stores she knows she should avoid.

Her gratitude for the kindness of strangers is saturated in fatigue.

Rachel isn’t really her name. After sharing too much with a reporter, she asks if she can use a pseudonym. 

“Just not something that sounds like an old lady.”

She said she and her mother have watched as the number of cases on the reservation have skyrocketed. She sees people ignoring the advice of tribal leaders and health care professionals almost every time she ventures out of their home for essentials.

“It’s just education, but people don’t really want to hear it,” she said. “I think they’re kind of tired of it. And for people in our situation, where we have to haul water for our livestock, it’s inconvenient to the point of being very annoying.”

She said they’re extremely grateful for the help, especially that aid that supports her mom.

“We just have to wipe down whatever comes into the house,” Rachel said. “And you know, doing that every day is crazy. It’s crazy work.”

She said she’s been a beneficiary of the Adopt a Native Elder program, which gives people coupons for a grocery store in Kayenta where they used to shop at all the time. With Kayenta being one of the hot spots of the outbreak, they cannot risk shopping there. 

When asked what would be most helpful, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Water,” she says, noting that the Navajo Tribal Park is delivering water to some residents who live inside the park’s boundaries. “It would be helpful if someone delivered water. A couple of years back we had that incident with that contamination, and I remember one weekend, there’s a water truck that came from San Juan County. If there was a way to assist with delivering, instead of picking up water.”

People wait in line for hours to fill their water tanks in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Roughly 30% of the population in the Navajo Nation lacks running water. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. Due to strict COVID-19 curfew hours that keep people home for 57 hours on the weekends, the water lines can get even longer on Fridays, since people need enough water to last them and their animals until Monday. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Water problems, community solutions

Access to water on the reservation is not a new issue. An estimated 30% of those who live on the reservation don’t have running water. 

When one of the main precautions against the spread of the virus is washing hands, clothes and communal surfaces, the inaccessibility to water becomes a life-threatening situation. In Kayenta, Jo Ward closed her three businesses in hopes of protecting her family and employees. But the chapter leadership came to her and asked her to reopen the laundromat she owns because people needed to be able to wash their clothes, and many didn’t have the ability to do that in their homes.

On the Utah side of the border, where about 8,000 people live, residents take pickup trucks with water tanks in them to a pump near the community’s post office where they wait, sometimes several hours, to fill a tank that will last a day or a week, depending on a family’s size and needs.

At about 8 a.m. Janet Holiday is sixth in line, which means at least three hours waiting and another 30 minutes to fill the 250-gallon tank with water she plans to deliver to her companion’s cousin, who lives in Kayenta, Arizona, but can’t leave his house because he has health problems.

“We just try to help each other as much as we can,” she said. “When the virus came along, people can’t rely on just themselves.”

That sentiment is pervasive. 

As much as some people try to isolate and protect themselves, it is usually a call for help from a neighbor or relative that makes venturing to town worth the risk.

The fact that families live together, sharing resources and responsibilities, relying on each other through generations and even extended familial relationships, has been cited repeatedly as one of the reasons COVID-19 has spread so extensively to even the most remote parts of the rural reservation.

But their commitment to family, especially their elders, is also the very thing that protects and sustains them.

It is, in fact, such a powerful bond that even hundreds of miles away, tribal members are moved to take action, including pulling together a donation drive about a week earlier that included the University of Utah School of Medicine’s Office of Equity and Inclusion and the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake City, which delivered three semitrailers full of food, water, personal protective equipment and other supplies to Sands and the Utah Navajo Health Systems’ COVID-19 Relief project.

Ruth Holiday, 84, sits outside of her home in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. A sign hangs on the door of her home notifying visitors not to enter because her husband has a respiratory illness. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Protecting the ‘wisdom keepers’

For members of the Navajo Nation, the elderly are not “vulnerable,” as they are so often called, but instead, they are leaders.

And while all communities understand the unique threat COVID-19 poses to the elderly, members of the Navajo Nation have demonstrated just how committed they are to mitigating the risk to their oldest citizens. 

“Every time we hear about the loss of our elders, it’s just devastating,” said Samantha Eldridge, a political science doctoral student at the University of Utah whose father still lives in a remote section of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.

“My dad is fluent in Navajo, and the work we’re doing, protecting our elders, is so important because they’re considered our wisdom keepers, the keepers of our language, culture and traditions. We have to keep them home, keep them safe, so they can continue to share that knowledge with not just our generation, but future generations.”

She and her sister were sending care packages to their father when they started to worry about others who may not have the means. That’s when they reached out to Sands and Khadjenoury at Utah Navajo Health System. 

The health system’s relief project has just recently begun taking donations, which is a massive boost to their ability to help both those who are elderly and those who are homebound for other reasons, including testing positive for COVID-19.

Sands jokes that the program started with a toilet paper shortage — something everyone can relate to as it seems the lack of paper products was universal. 

“I got this idea for a program about just helping and feeding people,” he said. “Just helping them out a little bit. At the time, nobody could find toilet tissue. So at first, we just helped out with that.”

In actuality, Sands laid the foundation for the COVID-19 Relief program months before the virus shut down his movie projects, making a desk job in his hometown much more enticing.

“I started a program for firewood because people kept asking for help,” he said. “I started the firewood program in October, and I think that’s what was the beginning of the program that I didn’t know was going to be.”

In fact, he never intended to start any kind of permanent assistance program.

“I was just filling needs,” he said. “But as time went by, and the quarantines happened, the shutdowns happened, the isolation, and then (COVID-19) hit the reservation, that’s when everything escalated. I thought, ‘If they can’t work, if they’re not allowed to go to town, how are they going to eat?’”

Sands said as the Navajo Nation became one of the nation’s most virulent outbreaks, he reached out to private companies, nonprofits and individual people to build a network that became a safety net to those living in the Utah section of the Navajo reservation. Among his staunchest supporters were his colleagues, and he received help in every form, including an expanded budget.

“The budget I started with is completely different than the budget I have now because the need increased,” he said. 

Despite that budget increase, Khadjenoury said that donations, both monetary and ones like Eldridge was involved with, have allowed them to “stretch” that budget even further.

The schedule Sands and Khadjenoury have maintained for the last couple of months is brutal.

Sahar Khadjenoury, Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief program project coordinator, and Pete Sands, Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief Program project manager, deliver food to elders in the Navajo Nation in San Juan County on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

They’ve spent six days a week delivering food, firewood and water, and then they’d make a seven-hour trip to Salt Lake City where they’d collect food from donors and food banks and then drive another seven hours home where they cleaned and sterilized the food for Monday’s pickups and deliveries.

It is a frenetic pace. 

But one both of them feel obliged, even privileged, to maintain.

The alternative is something Khadjenoury can’t contemplate.

“I’m worried if I take a day off,” she said, “somebody might not eat.”

So they take calls, read emails, make lists and sort groceries. They have help from volunteers within the Utah Navajo Health System, and Khadjenoury said that’s what makes them most comfortable because not only have they all had Federal Emergency Management Agency training, they know the roads, the people and the risks associated with helping both those families trying to avoid the virus and those who’ve tested positive.

Delivering to just seven or eight houses may take an entire day “because we have so much ground to cover,” Khadjenoury said of the reservation that stretches hundreds of miles, with some houses more than an hour from a main highway.

“Sahar isn’t exaggerating when she says someone might not eat,” Eldridge said. “It’s a difficult time to be away. This is the time of year when we usually go home, when we check on our family. This is the time of year when we have our ceremonies back home.”

Sahar Khadjenoury, Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief program project coordinator, organizes a list of elders who need food donations at Utah Navajo Health System in Montezuma Creek, San Juan County, on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The COVID-19 Relief project is a surrogate for many families, and a literal lifeline to those who are quarantined with the virus.

“It’s a very touching experience,” said Khadjenoury. “You see the children’s faces ... pressed up against the window. They’re so curious and they want to know who is coming, what do they have, and what are they going to do with it? Oftentimes these are houses that have gone without any contact or anybody coming to see or visit them. I assume it’s incredibly lonely and when you run out of food and supplies, what do you do because you can’t go to the store and infect other people? It’s tough because as they improve and get better, they are getting really hungry.”

She said it’s usually “the matriarch” who comes out when a visitor pulls up and signals that they shouldn’t approach the house.

“It’s kind of sad because I think there’s a stigma about being positive,” Khadjenoury said. “Some families are embarrassed and very shy about it.”

For her and Sands, any fear they might feel about attending to the needs of COVID-19 patients is mitigated by the precautions they take and the desire to alleviate the suffering they can see even if they don’t speak.

“I wouldn’t say I’m scared,” Khadjenoury said. “But I am concerned. I am making sure I have the proper PPE, and I check my mask that it’s on firm, and that my gloves are fresh every house we go to. And I use hand sanitizer. ... It is in the back of my mind, and I don’t communicate that.”

What both Sands and Khadjenoury and those who make deliveries with them communicate is connection. Every box of food is a reminder that someone is thinking about them, that someone cares about them, and that no matter how rough the road or sick they may be, they are not alone.

“This is where the community comes together, with this kind of program,” said Eldridge, who took to Twitter last week to thank those who dropped supplies at the Urban Indian Center or made donations online. “I feel like a lot of our elders and families would not have been able to get the supplies they needed without them. They’re putting their own health at risk to care for them, working 15 hour days, and it is all heart work. ... That’s the work they’re doing.”

The small town of Halchita, San Juan County, is surrounded by desert in the Navajo Nation on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News