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Pandemic hits Navajo Nation hard, group works tirelessly to provide relief

Posted at 11:44 AM, Dec 04, 2020

The Navajo Nation is a sprawling part of the country, where Americans face challenges that many may find hard to believe exist in the United States.

“The unemployment rate is 50-60 percent," said Ethel Branch, who has experienced those challenges firsthand.

Branch was born and raised on the Navajo Nation.

“I grew up on a ranch. We didn’t have running water or electricity," she said.

The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the United States. The reservation is roughly the size of West Virginia and reaches into Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

The novel coronavirus has hit this area as hard as anywhere in the country. The virus is spreading uncontrollably in 75 communities on the reservation, according to the Navajo Department of Health.

“The magnitude of need in our communities is significant," Branch said.

She has been trying to meet that need since March with what started with a GoFundMe page.

"Early on, we were thinking really small, you know, like let’s help like five families for two weeks and hope that the pandemic is contained within two weeks," she explained.

But as the pandemic went from weeks to months, The Navajo Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund grew to so much more.

“I would say we’ve raised about $7.5 million at this point," Branch said.

They've now established a non-profit called Yee Ha'ólníi Doo, where people can donate and learn more about efforts to help people on the reservation during the pandemic.

The money pays for a variety of necessities, including PPE, cleaning supplies, boxes of food that can feed a family of four for two week and materials to keep people informed on the virus. Additionally, it will provide water in a place where it can be a luxury, especially right now.

"A third of our communities of Navajo and Hopi don’t have running water, and so, asking people to wash their hands frequently is asking them to make a decision between drinking water and water to feed their animals and water to wash their hands with," Branch said.

Branch says they’ve helped 48,000 Navajo and Hopi households so far, but at a cost of $250,000 a week, the millions they’ve raised is not enough.

“We have enough to get to the end of December, and I think we’re making headway and we’re getting through the first part of January," she said.

They hope to raise an additional more than $6 million to keep their operation going through the end of the pandemic as numbers on the reservation rise, in both cases and deaths.

While challenges are nothing new to Navajo and Hopi people, neither is a spirit of fighting beyond them.

Branch went from growing up on that ranch without water or electricity to graduating from Harvard and becoming the Navajo Nation’s Attorney General from 2015 to 2019.

Now, as this pandemic poses a new challenge, Branch is fighting to make sure her community makes it through.

If you’re interested in contributing to the fund, click here.