GALLUP, N.M. — In the Navajo Nation’s fight against COVID-19, Jeremy Boucher has seen both tragedy and triumph. The Navajo have been the hardest hit indigenous nation in North America, at one point having a per-capita infection rate higher than New York and New Jersey, with more than 9,900 cases of COVID and 527 fatalities.  

Boucher, a Catholic and co-director of the Southwest Indian Foundation, saw the devastating reach of the virus firsthand in a family his nonprofit assisted. A Navajo mother working at a hospital to support her family took every precaution to keep them safe. Like many Navajo families, multiple generations live under one roof. Despite her efforts, her husband and grandfather caught the disease and died, leaving her and her grandmother to raise several children.

“She had no place to go, and they had no place to go,” Boucher said. “We helped out with what we could.”

For months, the Navajo Nation had imposed intense lockdown requirements to get COVID-19 under control.

Boucher said COVID-19 intensified enormous challenges on the Navajo community. Many families live without running water and adequate housing and “are isolated by great distances.” The Navajo Nation has limited medical facilities with limited resources and little more than a dozen grocery stores to serve a territory that is 27,413 square miles, a larger area than the entire state of West Virginia.

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Southwest Indian Foundation seemed like it had “an infinite number of families that needed help” right away with precious few resources.

“In a lot of cases, we went into full emergency mode,” Boucher said.

On Sept. 8, however, the Navajo Nation recorded zero new cases of COVID-19 for the first time since March. Many Catholics and people of goodwill worked together to achieve this significant triumph.

Boucher said “a wave of support from outside our community” made a significant difference. The Knights of Columbus, he said, were “inspiring” and worked closely with the Southwest Indian Foundation.

“They stepped up and helped us purchase food baskets,” he said.

The Southwest Indian Foundation created a catalogue for people to purchase Native-made items that would financially support the Southwest’s Native Americans, an effort that “took off like crazy,” he said. Another group of people in Texas loaded a pickup truck of cleaning supplies and drove 12 hours to deliver them to the Navajo Nation.

“That really touched me,” he said. “It gave me hope that there are people who understand — and that there’s real goodness out there.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Catholics have played an important role in helping Native American communities fight the disease’s devastating impact.

At St. Michael’s Indian School on the Navajo Nation territory, tragedy hit close to home too often.

“The school suffered a lot, but that motivated people,” said Dot Teso, St. Michael’s president.

St. Michael’s school has kept local people employed during the pandemic — of all their employees, only six are non-Native people — and worked hard to keep families fed. School buses were repurposed to make food deliveries to families at key drop-off points on the Navajo Nation territory.

The school has provided chat rooms following safe-environment protocols for middle- and high-school students to speak with St. Michael’s educators and for the school to provide a school “crisis response team” to help students cope with “extreme situations” in their personal or family lives.

St. Michael’s is planning to start its school year with a mix of in-person and virtual classes while following the public-health guidelines of the Navajo Nation, which has begun reopening. 

“We’re trying to reach all our students and parents,” Celie Henderson, assistant principal at St. Michael’s who is Navajo and a St. Michael’s alumna herself, told the Register. She explained that “internet is a luxury” on the reservation, but there are now lengthy wait times for people to hook up to the internet.

“Now everyone is in demand for virtual learning,” she said, emphasizing that St. Michael’s is doing everything to make sure the children have no gaps in their schooling from the pandemic.

Teso said school staff are concerned about catching COVID-19, but the students are their priority. “They show up for these kids.”

And St. Michael’s has helped provide a place for the children of their staff and other essential workers on the Navajo Nation.

Henderson, who has two children of her own, said she appreciated personally what this meant for so many parents, as “just finding somebody to stay home with them was a struggle.”

 

Fighting Deadly Isolation

Father Michael Carson, executive director of the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register some Native American nations and tribes have been hit hard by COVID-19 while others have had smaller outbreaks.

For nations like the Lakota and the Navajo, where poverty rates were already extremely high, COVID-19 has been more devastating. Getting assistance is complicated by the maze of different jurisdictions that have to be navigated. 

A huge concern, Father Carson explained, is isolation, particularly on rural reservations. Many Native people have been spiritually isolated, as the lockdowns have prevented priests from ministering to the sick and celebrating Masses. And the COVID-19 lockdowns have taken a heavy psychological toll, as well, compounding existing problems.

“Native Americans have the highest suicide rate of any culture group in the U.S.,” he said.

The priest said Catholics can stand with their brothers and sisters in Native American communities in their fight against COVID-19 through a variety of ways.

Father Carson said the Catholic nonprofit Black and Indian Mission Office is doing important work, and people can also directly support the dioceses who provide social services to Native peoples. They can also call local pastors and get firsthand information about what they need.

James Kinyon, executive director of Catholic Social Services for the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, told the Register that the Lakota have also imposed very strict lockdown measures because they take seriously “any kind of contagious disease.”

“Smallpox has not left their memory, which may have wiped out a third or more of their population,” he said. Health issues are also “very common” and “very chronic,” and the Lakota do not have the facilities to handle a major outbreak. Some of these strict precautions, such as placing checkpoints on any major road, have led to jurisdictional fights with South Dakota state authorities.

Kinyon said Catholic Social Services “moved as quickly as we could to help,” migrating as much of their services as possible online. They have been working closely with the Catholic Red Cloud Indian Schools to find creative ways to provide telehealth mental counseling and reduce youth’s risk for substance abuse or suicide, which is now on the rise.

Previous to COVID, Catholic Social Services would see between 800 and 1,000 youth per year take part in the Lakota Circles of Hope program. Now these individuals cannot leave the reservation to go to counseling sessions due to the strict lockdown, many do not have internet access, and regular in-person classes are suspended. The Red Cloud Indian Schools staff have helped by picking up youth to access the school’s internet to speak with a Catholic Social Services counselor.

“What you need to do to prevent COVID most often runs contrary to what you need to do to address drugs, alcohol, mental health or family problems,” Kinyon said.

 

Fighting COVID for a Second Chance

Native peoples on Hawaii have also been particularly hard hit by COVID-19.

According to the state’s health department, Native Hawaiians are 21% of the population, but make up 12% of COVID-19 cases, while Pacific Islanders are 4% of the population and comprise 32% of COVID-19 cases.

Toni Bissen, a Catholic of Native Hawaiian descent and executive director of the Pūʻā Foundation, which works closely with the Diocese of Honolulu, told the Register that one important way they have helped save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic is through providing safe transitional housing and rental support to Native Hawaiian women leaving prison.

“There’s a disproportionality of Native Hawaiian women who are incarcerated” compared to the general population, she said. Bissen said it is critical to make sure that Native Hawaiian women leaving prison do not end up homeless, where they are vulnerable to catch and spread the disease.

“They’re more at risk because of underlying health concerns and because of age,” she said.

Bissen said they were able to help one woman named Trinidad at Mercy House, the transitional housing center jointly run by the Pūʻā Foundation and the diocese, and by providing psychological and spiritual support, particularly through weekly lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture). On Aug. 8, they found permanent housing for Trinidad on the island of Molokai, which has only a few COVID-19 cases.

“We’re keeping her safe with this housing, and it’s giving her a second chance,” Bissen said. “And that’s a success story.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.