Goal is long-term community sustainability
by Kendra Walker
In an effort to assist the Diné people of the Navajo Nation struggling with hardships related to COVID-19, members of the Crested Butte community embarked on a journey to New Mexico this summer to deliver food and supplies to those in need.
According to the Navajo Tourism Department, the Navajo Nation is home of the largest Native American tribe, with the reservation spanning 27,413 square miles across Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Many members of the Navajo Nation communities live in remote areas with no electricity or running water; basic food and supplies can be difficult to access, while local health care services have been overwhelmed during the pandemic.
Kirsten Atkins, one of the organizers of the donation effort, has been involved in the environmental justice movement for over 25 years and felt the situation in the Navajo Nation was one to lend her support. “A lot of factors from this crisis are things new to all of us but a lot of the issues bubbling to the surface right now—with environmental racism and social justice—have been happening on the Navajo Nation with the Diné people for a long time,” she said. “The pandemic just exacerbated it and brought it all to the surface.”
Her goal, alongside friend Denise Luttrell of Jamestown, Colo. and Chicano/ Diné organizer Margaret Montano, was to supply both short-term needs of the Diné people, such as food, sleeping supplies, health care supplies, pet food, etc., as well as long-term needs for community sustainability, including water catchment and gardening and composting systems. They established drop-off locations in Crested Butte, Boulder and Denver earlier this summer and collected supplies from the community.
“We were originally hoping to provide enough to help 15 families,” said Atkins. “But because people were so generous here, and we also collected things from Paonia, the Jamestown/Boulder area and in Denver, we had enough that we could distribute about 150 boxes of supplies.”
Additionally, they received a donated tractor, and were able to purchase supplies from monetary donations for water catchment systems, hoop houses and gardening. As of mid-July, they had received $19,450 in monetary donations to go toward long-term food sovereignty, gift cards to local hardware stores on the reservation and gas money for community distribution.
Then at the end of June, a group caravanned six trucks, five of which were hauling full trailers, to deliver the supplies to their Diné contacts organizing the grassroots Navajo COVID-19 relief, Jake Toledus and Janene Yazzie, at the New Mexico/Arizona border near Gallup. The group included Atkins, Luttrell, Montano, Atkins’ husband Heath Hansens, Crested Butte locals Andi Burnite and Aaron Peterson, and George Ridgik of Jamestown.
They then spent a day unloading and organizing everything, divvying up items into well-rounded boxes of food, hygiene and gardening supplies. And though they might have typically helped with the supply distribution runs across the reservation, Atkins said that for everyone’s safety they did not partake. “While we would have loved getting to visit with people and hearing their stories, at this moment we just didn’t think it was a safe way to do it,” she said of following COVID health practices.
However, they did get to meet one of the first families that came to pick up some supplies, who were especially excited about the three cases of Mulay’s Sausage that had been donated, Atkins recalled fondly.
The supplies will now get distributed across hundreds of miles of reservation land to folks in need. Atkins said that many of the boxes went to the senior center and to the unsheltered population experiencing homelessness. “Jake, Janene and her partner Kern have just been hitting the ground running there ever since,” said Atkins. “They’ve been delivering everything, they’ve been working really hard, doing the on-the-ground work.”
“They’ve been sending us lots of pictures, especially from the senior center,” said Atkins. “They really wanted to express the gratitude for all of the blessings they’ve received from our communities.”
With more donations coming through since the initial June run, they plan to purchase more gardening and water catchment supplies and Luttrell and Ridgik will to do another donations drop-off this week.
“The gardening and farming and food sovereignty are what’s going to help sustain people for the long run,” said Atkins. “It’s a small piece of the big picture but it’s helping to provide more long-term solutions, because at some point the virus is going to fade.”
She continued, “It’s important for people to take the time to educate themselves and to continue to take the time to watch what’s happening in these other communities. While I absolutely recognize that we have a ton of need in our own Crested Butte community, we’re fortunate here to have the resources that we do. I am grateful for the community’s support that we have for each other and it’s something that we can share with others around us and in our region.”
If you’re interested in donating to the Navajo COVID relief, visit www.gofundme.com/f/navajo-nation-covid19-supply-run