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State & Regional

Locals lend their hands – and time – to improve conditions on Navajo reservation

During the COVID shutdown, Parkite Melani Glassman had time on her hands and was feeling useless. She heard about conditions on the Navajo reservation in southern Utah, and was horrified.

The health disparities she learned of – along with living conditions far different than most Americans enjoy – struck her.

Those problems are far from new – but she said the pandemic highlighted them.

"A lot of the promises from the US government historically haven't followed through, I mean dating back centuries, so they kind of have been less on their own and that's created way more health disparities from addiction and alcoholism to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, like half the reservation is pre diabetic," she said. "So when when COVID-19 hit I think it just highlighted everything that was already happening on the reservation and for better for worse allowed others to become more aware of the conditions."

Wanting to help ease the suffering caused in part by lack of access by lack of access to goods and services, she started collecting supplies for what she called urgent relief. Then she started renting a truck and driving five hours down to the reservation to donate. She took food and dry goods, sanitation and hygiene supplies and other essentials.

Through that spontaneous gesture she connected with Bud Frazier, who was doing the same thing – he had founded the non-profit Navajo Strong during the pandemic and is its executive director. Frazier is a Navajo American who grew up in American Fork and now lives in Saratoga Springs.

Frazier and Glassman now work together, with Glassman joining Navajo Strong as community support and outreach coordinator.

Frazier explained that as the pandemic has evolved, so has Navajo Strong’s work. At the pandemic’s height, Navajo Strong had a warehouse in Blanding to hold all the donations they were distributing and an employee to divvy up supplies, fill requests and deliver them with volunteers’ help around the reservation, where many people don’t have addresses.

He said he gained as much as he gave during that period.

"It's really given me an insight and taught me a lot about my culture and how strong and resilient the Navajo people are, we are still here were strong and resilient," he said. "And the Navajo people adapt and have adapted. And also, you know, the culture is more of a community culture down there not a every man for himself. It's helping others and supporting the community as a whole."

Glassman said the Navajo on the reservation are about 94 % vaccinated now. And many elements of pre-pandemic life have returned to normal. But pressing needs remain, as do goals for improving health, quality of life and opportunity.

The reservation has just 13 grocery stores to serve a geographical area the size of West Virginia. Most people on the reservation drive several hours each way to go to the store. They’re also seriously underserved by medical facilities.

It may be isolated and geographically dispersed, but the reservation is highly populated – 200,000 Navajos live there, about half of all Navajo in the country’s tribal nation. Navajos make up the largest indigenous community in US.

Now Navajo Strong is focusing on longer-term projects that support sustainability on the reservation, such as teaching farming and harvesting practices that also preserve cultural traditions. And because the needs are so complex – infrastructure to expand electricity, for example – Navajo Strong is working first and foremost on raising awareness of conditions.

Glassman highlighted one among many statistics that tell the story: the New Mexico region of the reservation contains 75% of all Americans who live without running water and electricity.

Frazier hopes Indigenous People’s Day will provide people an opportunity to think about the Navajo. For him it’s also a day to celebrate family and culture.

"I'm really grateful that it's not Columbus Day - that it's Indigenous Peoples Day and that it's just bringing awareness to what's that we're still here and there's there was land and culture before Columbus came and so I just love that," he said. "It's bringing awareness to indigenous people. I plan on putting a lot of stuff on social media, probably giving my parents a call or and then you know, reaching out to other relatives just to check in."

The organization will also soon launch its second holiday toy drive, and drop boxes will be placed in Park City. Last year’s drive delivered 1,100 new toys to children of all ages on the reservation.

Visit navajostrong.org for information on how to get involved or participate in the toy drive, or email Melani@navajostrong.org for more information.