The Rev. Tweedy Sombrero began her move to Shiprock, New Mexico, in early May to fill her new appointment at The United Methodist Church’s Four Corners Native American Ministry, which serves the Navajo Nation.
She described her drive across the northern region of the reservation, which has been hit hard with COVID-19 cases, like driving through a ghost town.
“It’s just incredible all that is happening,” said Sombrero, a member of the Navajo Nation. She said the reservation has been enacting curfews from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. to stop the spread of the coronavirus. “You see everybody start running to their homes around that time.”
Residents face a $1,000 fine for breaking curfew, she said.
The number of positive COVID-19 cases for the Navajo Nation has reached 4,071 and there have been 142 deaths, according to a May 18 press release from the tribe. The Navajo Nation has surpassed New York and New Jersey for the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate in the United States, according to the most recent data.
With an estimated 174,000 residents, it is the largest Indian reservation in the U.S., spanning portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. The fact that a third of the households on the reservations do not have access to running water, combined with cultural practices of shaking hands and multigenerational and extended families living together, has contributed to the spread of the virus, Sombrero said.
The Rev. Shirley Montoya has been serving as interim director of Four Corners, a ministry of the New Mexico Conference, for the past two years. She also is a member of the Navajo Nation.
“They ought to give medals out for COVID survivors,” she said.
Montoya’s sister works for the Indian Health Services hospital in Shiprock and tested positive for the virus. “She had to quarantine herself and she had her grandson and two of her kids living under the same roof.”
Montoya said her sister locked herself in her room for a month.
“They would fix food for her and leave it at her door,” Montoya said. “It was really awful.”
Montoya was with her sister the week she tested positive. Although Montoya tested negative, she still self-quarantined for two weeks. Her sister has recovered and is already back working at the hospital.
The Four Corners Ministry has focused on services to support the volunteer health workers who have come to help the community. Housing has been difficult and there are not a lot of places for workers to get food.
“We started to provide sack lunches to the volunteers, front-line workers, the Navajo Nation police, the fire department and first responders once a week,” said Montoya. “Once the IHS (hospital) workers report to work, they can’t leave, and the cafeteria is usually closed.”
In addition, the Four Corners Ministry is working with the regional emergency relief committee to coordinate the distributions of masks and other essential items, such as water and firewood, to tribal members living in the surrounding communities.
According to Sombrero, many of the Navajo elders living in the hills choose to live in a traditional way and do not have running water or electricity. She said they use wood-burning stoves to keep warm. The weather is still cool overnight and there has been a shortage of wood.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief is providing an $8,000 grant to the ministry to help support ongoing needs. The grant is one of six solidarity grants issued by the relief agency to assist Native American communities with food security and water needs.
“I’m hoping with the funding coming in that we can pay for gas so volunteers can take supplies into the surrounding communities,” Montoya said.
Many of the volunteers are currently unemployed and have minimal income. In addition to food, water, masks and sanitizers, Montoya is asking for games and outdoor activities for the children.
“The areas that are hit the hardest are the rural reservation areas and the children don’t have internet,” she said. “Just some outlet for creativity, I think, is good as they try to keep themselves busy.”
The New Mexico Conference put out a call to church members on Native American Ministry Sunday, April 26, for handmade face masks. The conference has shipped 500 so far.
“We’ve gathered approximately $1,000 in donations specifically for the ministry in April,” said Allie Newsom, communications director for the conference.
In addition, the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference has been receiving monetary donations, masks and supplies to send to the Four Corners Ministry. The needs of the ministry will be part of the focus for the conference’s Memorial Day Facebook service on May 24.
“We certainly keep the members of the Navajo Nation in our prayers,” said the Rev. David Wilson. “We understand the cultural complexities that exist among our Native communities and the challenges they were already facing even before the pandemic made its way onto the reservation.”
Montoya said she is grateful for the immediate support coming into the Navajo Nation, but she fears the worst is yet to come.
“When people really feel their unemployment and this frenzy to come out and help is over, maybe six months from now, people are going to really be suffering with a lack of food and things like that,” she said.
Montoya is seeking funds and grants to help people pay their utility bills and buy cell phones, especially for elders in case they get sick, gas and burial assistance.
“There’s not much burial assistance right now,” she said. “These are the kinds of areas I’d like to collect money for when the need really kicks in. I think it’s just a matter of time.”
She anticipates being in a lockdown mode until at least mid-June.
“I just ask people to pray, pray for the Nation,” Sombrero said.
Underwood is a communication consultant with ties to the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. She is a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma.
News media contact: Vicki Brown at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.