Every day, Franklin Martin walks to the Chevy truck he inherited from his cousin, who died too young in an alcohol-related driving accident.
Martin could replace the truck; it is well over 20 years old and has the miles to match. Still, Martin likes the connection to his past that it provides him with, even though his memories are laced with tragedy. He doesn’t want to forget the people he has lost.
Martin’s life has been marked by the loss of loved ones since long before COVID-19 came to the Navajo Reservation. Today, however, that loss feels closer than in years past because the spread of coronavirus has hit his people uniquely hard.
These days, Martin uses the truck to transport water and other supplies to individuals in need on the Bodaway-Gap chapter of the Navajo Reservation. He and his daughter, Alicia Martin, started hauling water and other supplies to individuals living on the Navajo Reservation in March of this year.
To live in the Arizona desert without running water requires each family to haul water to their home. Navajo families often live on less than 100 gallons of water a week to cook, clean and drink.
The average individual in the United States uses close to 100 gallons of water in a day, but the Navajo Nation has had a precarious relationship with water for years. The Arizona desert is very dry, and the bedrock is difficult to break through. Even if you could dig deep enough to reach water, the uranium mining of past decades has made much of the groundwater unsafe for human consumption.
The arrival of the virus
Day-to-day life was difficult enough, but then COVID-19 hit. In the early days of the pandemic, the Navajo Nation had some of the highest case rates for the virus in the U.S. The Federal Government did little to help. The situation got so bad that Doctors Without Borders stepped in to help control the spread.
The guidelines to stay safe were simple: Wash your hands, wear a mask and social distance.
When water is scarce, it is difficult to follow the guidelines because it is difficult to clean and wash your hands if you have such little access to water. It is also difficult to social distance when you frequently need to drive into a city center to get more water.
Arizona does not have a statewide mask mandate, and outside the reservation, mask usage is somewhat scarce in the smaller cities.
As of Oct. 14, there had been 10,780 confirmed cases on the reservation. That is nearly one case per 30 people. Simply put, the Navajo Nation is not in a strong position to fight COVID-19 — much like the diseases colonizers originally brought into Native peoples’ land.
Individuals at a local level, including Alicia and Franklin Martin, are determined to help others.
“We started collecting supplies and delivering them as soon as we could,” Alicia Martin said. “It’s not right to say ‘no’ when someone needs help, and people are dying right now. Our people need help.”
The work started slowly due to the fact that the two were learning how to organize a relief team. With permission from the restaurant where she was working, Alicia Martin took water to give to families. Her restaurant had been shuttered due to the virus, and she had been furloughed.
Then she started thinking bigger. In April, she started a GoFundMe campaign and raised $10,000. She brought in help to manage the money side of things and ensure the donations went to supplies for her people.
Things were moving rapidly. Then Franklin Martin was diagnosed with the virus. He spent two weeks in the hospital recovering. By the time the two got back to delivering water and supplies, three of his family members — an aunt, an uncle and a cousin — had died from COVID-19.
The Martins continued delivering supplies even as the battle against the virus took a personal toll on their family.
Cheryl Osorio and her family live in a house that is not connected to the power grid and has no running water. Osorio uses a generator to power her house when needed and uses her wood stove to cook and purify her water.
Osorio and her family hadn’t been willing to drive into Page, Arizona, during the pandemic. The city didn’t enact a mask mandate until June 24, and the trip to the tourist town seemed too risky.
Osorio is grateful to the Martins for the supply runs but says that living conditions on the Reservation remain difficult. “I want to move out of here,” Osorio said. “I feel like we’re forgotten with everybody else getting help. This has been going on a long time. With COVID-19, it’s different: It is scarier.”
The Martins eventually started receiving help from other sources. Compassionate Colorado — a local community project that processes food and supply donations — delivered four trailers of food, water and cleaning supplies to the Martins in June.
The Martins insisted that every can of food, diaper and water bottle be cleaned with bleach before going into storage. They couldn’t risk carrying the coronavirus onto the reservation.
The items in highest demand have been hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. “They are like gold,” Alicia Martin said.
From bad to worse
The problems for the Navajo people started long before COVID-19. A land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes led to a freeze on all development and construction on the Navajo Reservation. The Bennet Freeze, as it was known, was intended to encourage negotiations between the two tribes. Instead, it prevented individuals from legally repairing or replacing their homes.
The Freeze lasted over 40 years, until the Obama administration removed it in 2009. But the ramifications continue to impact individuals.
Joyce Dale lives in a home that has no working plumbing. The foundations became damaged during the Freeze and went unrepaired for years. Dale qualified for a subsidy to help with her housing, but her home was deemed damaged beyond repair, so she is not permitted to use the subsidy to repair the home.
“I’m fighting to keep mice and other wild things out,” Dale said. “I’m so ashamed of my house, how it looks. I wish I lived in a better home in a place with water. I wish we could repair what we have.”
The house has been re-sided with plywood over the years, and she stores boxes in her bathroom because the plumbing doesn’t work.
She and her husband repeatedly apply hand sanitizer and are isolating themselves to avoid COVID-19. She fears that if she were to get the coronavirus, she would not make it through. She is medically vulnerable due to having had a stroke.
Doing what they can
“People don’t understand what we are going through on the reservation,” Alicia Martin said. “We were forgotten long before COVID-19, and now we are struggling more because of years of being abandoned.”
The Martins are doing what they can to help people during COVID-19 but are already thinking about what they can do for their people once COVID-19 is no longer a threat. They have set up a nonprofit — Families to Families/Ajooba’ Hasin — and raised $102,665 of their $110,000 goal for COVID-relief on GoFundMe. Franklin Martin is running for president of his Navajo Chapter.
The Martin duo has been talking weekly with their nonprofit board to organize deliveries and seek out much-needed supplies. They work six days per week, often for 12 or more hours per day. They are hopeful that their work can help their people today and create more opportunities for their people in the future.
They have no plans to stop.
Courtesy of Denver VOICE / INSP.ngo
Read more in the Dec. 9-15, 2020 issue.