It was January 23, 2021. Only five days later, the Navajo Department of Health would report that the total number of COVID-19 deaths on the reservation had surpassed 1,000.
But today, Kay and her eighty-eight year old mother, Meta, focused on the task in front of them: cooking a breakfast of fry bread, bacon, and scrambled eggs to feed the four generations that live under their roof. They moved around the kitchen in well-worn tracks: back and forth between the stove and the long table. In this house, Meta raised her children and grandchildren. Now, as she placed a steaming batch of fry bread on the table, it was her great-grandchildren who ran in to snatch it hot from the bowl before they could be told to sit and serve themselves a plate.
Even as relatives worried for her safety during the height of second wave of infections, the Atene matriarch would not hear of leaving the home: “Here, I am already taken care of. I’m not going anywhere else,” she explained. Their family has lived here ever since Meta’s grandparents returned here to Oljato-Monument Valley in Utah after surviving the Long Walk at only eleven years old. “My home is here,” Meta added.
Stretching 27,000 square miles across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, the Navajo Nation has higher levels of overcrowded, substandard housing than any tribal lands in America and a higher per capita COVID-19 death rate than most U.S. states. Around the globe, overcrowded, multigenerational homes emerged as one of the deadliest places to be and the number of homes on the reservation with more than two people per bedroom is at least six times as high as the overall U.S. rate, according to a 2011 Navajo Housing Authority report.
Still, for many elders, relocating even temporarily may not be an option. Removal from family and land can stir up past trauma, from the lingering legacy of the Long Walk to more recent off-reservation boarding schools. Instead, many families have opted to stay intact and do their best to survive together. This means navigating intersectional public health and public housing crises to protect the health of elders within multigenerational homes.
“We did our very best to keep the virus out of our nation,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. He has paused for an interview in the middle of a food distribution in Shiprock, New Mexico. Hundreds of cars lined up to receive cardboard boxes filled with food, water, and cleaning supplies. Dressed in an orange vest, sunglasses, and a mask, President Nez looked like any other volunteer as he directed traffic. He shook his head as he remembered the early days of the pandemic: “It only took one person to bring the virus on to the nation. And when that happened, because of how close and tight-knit we are as a people, the virus -- this monster -- spread like wildfire throughout the Navajo Nation.”
In response, the Navajo Nation tribal government implemented strict curfews and is rolling out one of the most effective and aggressive vaccination distribution efforts in the U.S. Approximately 40% of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Navajo Department of Health updated as of April 28, 2021. Still, elected officials urge continued caution. Navajo Times reported on May 2, 2021 that health experts recommend "continued vigilance" in mask wearing and social distancing as "highly contagious variants of the virus continue to spread."
"Crowded living conditions promote the spread of the virus because physical distancing is nearly impossible," said Dr. Laura Hammitt, the director of infectious disease programs at the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "It has not been uncommon for one person from a household to develop symptoms and test positive, only to discover that the majority of their household members are already infected."
Hammitt explained that households on the Navajo Nation are three times as likely to be multigenerational compared to the State of Arizona. "Multigenerational living offers many benefits including opportunities for language and tradition to be passed down and childcare so parents can work outside the home," said Hammitt. "However, this makes it very hard to shield elders from exposure to the virus."
Elders over 65 account for approximately 60% of deaths due to COVID-19. Allie Young, the founder of Protect the Sacred, a grassroots initiative advocating for Diné culture and language preservation, said that numbers can't quantify how deeply these losses have reverberated through the Diné community.
“The role of elders is very important to the Native community. They are revered. They are our culture and language-bearers,” shared Young. “Because we’re not supposed to be here -- there were tremendous efforts to decimate our people. That’s why we respect our elders, because we recognize that our culture and languages are special. They are unique, and it’s what we fought for since the first contact. Our elders are a direct link to that. Their loss has been devastating.”
Even as restrictions on the reservation begin to ease with increased vaccination rates, elders will continue to remain vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases. The pandemic underscored a housing crisis that has been decades in the making, resulting from years of systemic injustices and broken promises by the U.S. government. Real protection for indigenous elders will only exist when these underlying infrastructure shortages are addressed at both the tribal and federal levels. Until then, solutions are needed to serve as a bridge between the immediate need for extra space during the coronavirus crisis and longer-term action addressing structural inequalities.
One solution takes the form of 8x15 foot structures resembling hipster "tiny homes." Across the reservation, Navajo teams are building these tiny homes on the properties of multigenerational families, with the support of Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) and Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. These shelters are intended to provide extra space for either the most vulnerable or most exposed family member to shelter apart from the main home. This reduces daily exposure to other relatives without removing them from their land or loved ones. So far, over 200 out of the proposed 300 shelters have been built in across the Navajo Nation since the program's launch in June 2020.
For the Atene family, having the ability to quarantine outside the main home is how Kay says that they could stop the virus from spreading further among the family after two of the grandchildren contracted it in November 2020. Having a designated shelter provides that option to families across the reservation. The goal is to proactively try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases in overcrowded, multigenerational homes.
“When the conversation initially started, it was around how to isolate or quarantine positive cases because that was one of the most urgent challenges,” explained Shira Goldstein, CORE Area Director for the Southwest. “But once we started to delve into the cultural nuances, including multigenerational homes or people living off-reservation and coming back home every weekend, we realized that this isn't just for COVID-19 positive cases. Instead, it shifted pretty quickly towards a much more of a preventative strategy, to better equip people to protect their family members over the long-term and not just isolate once they already have it.”
The immediacy of these tiny homes fits the urgency of the crisis: with a crew of four to five Diné community members, a shelter can be constructed on a family’s property within two days. Since they are technically temporary structures, the tiny homes meet the regulations governing the legal construction of permanent buildings on tribal land. Due to these restrictions as well as tradition, many households on the reservation already have additional structures besides the main house — whether it's a shed for extra storage, a traditional hogan for ceremonies, or a chaha’oh for shade in the summer. Among these shelters, the tiny homes provide a designated space for a family member to shelter or quarantine in that is insulated and outfitted with basic furniture and a hygiene kit with essential cleaning and sanitation supplies. Each tiny home is also built in conjunction with its own outhouse, to further limit exposure for the individual using the structure. As approximately 50% of homes on the Navajo Nation lack complete plumbing, many family share a single outhouse.
She stood just inside the doorway of her mother's home, swaying gently back and forth with her young daughter, McKenna Chee, laying against her chest. It was March 23, 2021 in Rough Rock, Arizona, but it felt like winter. Outside, a construction crew bundled in coats and gloves as they unloaded piles of wooden beams. Over the next few days, the crew would finish building the tiny home, providing a space for Harvey, her husband, and their two young daughters to shelter. Their three sons would remain in the main home with their grandmother.
For now, the house was still full — full of the bodies and belongings of eight people squeezing into a small space to shelter in place over the pandemic. Cans of food and bottled waters sat stacked up against the wall. McKenna Chee's bath basin was on the kitchen table. From the bedroom came the muffled voices of Winifred's other four children as they diligently tried to concentrate on their different classes.
Staying with her 67-year-old mother during the pandemic has been stressful, Harvey said. Her husband works in construction. For months, they lived in constant fear of him contracting the virus and bringing it home. Then in January 2021, he tested positive. "There is no extra space, so he was sleeping on the couch, and my mom had to leave the home," explained Harvey. Trying to get the kids to wear masks while they slept next to each other was a battle against the inevitable. Harvey and three of her five children all got COVID-19. "It was one of the most difficult experiences to go through," she shared. She paused as her words reached to adequately describe it. "It was very hard mentally. I felt like I was in a box, and I couldn't get out. I couldn't breathe. I was even trying to feed McKenna without getting too near her."
Now, the haze of spitting snow and rain started to roll in more heavily off the mountains. The construction crew began pack up for the day, struggling against the wind to cover the materials with a tarp. Although the weather has temporarily halted progress, Harvey remained hopeful. "It's a relief," she said. They would move in as soon as the structure was done.
“This isn't just about building a physical structure,” explained CORE Area Director Goldstein. “It’s about allowing people to make their decisions based on options, and to take back a little bit of control as to how they want to interact with this and future health issues.”
There are limitations to the program, as 300 shelters can only begin to address an issue that impacts a majority of families on the reservation. But it is a start. Otherwise, without options to isolate or distance, families in overcrowded homes can be forced to go to great lengths to protect elders or vulnerable family members. "We were sleeping outside, just to create some distance," said Brandon Yazzie, describing the precautions that he and his partner, Bobbie Benally, had been taking taking to protect the three elderly relatives they live with.
As he spoke, Yazzie stood outside the motel room where he and Benally had arrived a few hours earlier. He leaned against the doorway. Seated beside him, Benally rested her head back against the yellow brick wall. Even behind masks, they both looked exhausted. On March 19, 2021, Yazzie and Benally each tested positive for COVID-19. Less than twenty-four hours later, they had checked into the Travelodge by Windham, one of the government-sponsored isolation hotel sites in Farmington, New Mexico. These temporary accommodations are one of a number of alternative cares sites across Arizona and New Mexico intended for patients to self-isolate who have a lab-confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis or who may have been exposed, and are unable to safely isolate at home.
"I'm not even sure what I brought with me," said Benally, gesturing to the motel room behind her. "We were just panicking. We left as fast as we could." Their biggest fear was passing the virus to the elders in their family, including Yazzie's 82-year-old grandmother, who raised him since he was three-years-old. "Whenever we're sick, it's our grandmothers who take care of us and help us heal. Now we must protect her," said Benally. "Our elders carry the power and strength to keep our teachings alive. But if we cannot protect them from this virus, then our traditions will subside alongside them."
In their family, an uncle and two brothers died of COVID-19, including Benally's twin brother. The couple say it is difficult being separated from their children, but they don’t want to infect their family.
Isolation hotel sites have been an effective, short-term tool for stemming the spread among overcrowded households, explained Dr. Revina Talker, 44, who serves as the clinic manager and sole provider at the Navajo Mountain Community Health Center, which serves a rural population of approximately 500 people in Tonalea, Utah. However, for elders, relocating from home can be traumatizing. "An elderly grandma started crying when I told her she had tested positive and would need to quarantine in a hotel away from her family," remembered Talker. "She said: I've never left my husband or my family; we've never been apart. It's really difficult. They've heard the stories. They know there's a chance that they may not come back."
For families in tight living quarters, being vaccinated can mean feeling safe around family for the first time in over a year. Louise Bigman, 74, and her daughter, Delphina, both arrived at the Kayenta Health Center to receive their second doses of the vaccine together. While the younger Bigman filled out the necessary paperwork on behalf of both of them, she shared what the moment meant to their family. In January 2021, her father passed away from COVID-19. In the months following, Bigman said that her mother grappled with grief and isolation as the rest of the family attempted to shield her from unnecessary interactions in order to protect her health.
"She just felt so hopeless and alone," shared Bigman. "As soon as it was possible, she told me, I have to get the vaccine." She glanced over as her mother bared her arm to receive the second dose. "The whole way here in the car, she was praying. Praying for COVID-19 to pass from us and our land."
Before they leave the clinic, they paused to take a photo together. Bigman put an arm around her mother, leaning in close. "Today means a lot us," she shared before they turn to go. They leave the clinic together, walking side-by-side.
“We've been living in multigenerational homes for thousands of years. It’s embedded in how we live together,” says Dr. Pearl Yellowman, the Navajo Nation Division of Community Development Executive Director. “It is part of our cultural resiliency that we have multigenerational members living in the home: it’s how language is passed down, and how ceremonies and songs are passed down.”
In March 2020, Mariah Holiday, 26, learned that her grandmother tested positive for COVID-19. She immediately packed up her place in Washington, where she worked for four years, and returned to the reservation. After her grandmother Rosita Parrish recovered, Holiday decided to stay on -- reconnecting to the land that has been in their family for four generations. She learned how to weave from Parrish. Together, they process the wool from their herd and card and spin it. Then, they dye it with Navajo tea, sumac berries, sagebrush, and beets.
“I learned in high school,” said Parrish, fingering the soft brown, yellow, and rust-colored yarn with both comfort and care. “I just watched my mom doing it. I’m really glad I watched it. She would say, ‘Do it like this, Do it like that.’ When I made mistakes, she’d whack my hand.”
“Traditional knowledge is what our people have sustained their families with for thousands of years,” Holiday explained. She rolled the traditional spindle against her leg in a deft rhythm, winding a ball of red yarn while Rosita watched. “This is an initiative I want to take for my family, my future kids, and for my grandkids. I see my future farther than myself. We have a treasure here. That’s my drive.”
Most often, the passing down of this knowledge is interwoven in the rituals of daily life, lived alongside one another. In the morning, Endreya, 12, often makes fry bread with her great-grandmother, Meta Atene. They work side by side, slapping dough back and forth between their hands. Typically, Meta is dressed in a traditional velvet Navajo blouse and skirt, with traditional turquoise jewelry. Today, Endreya had on a tie-die sweatshirt and pink leggings. When Endreya stood at the stove to flip the bread, golden and dripping in oil, Meta was right at her shoulder.
In the afternoon, Kay Atene, 67, flipped through faded photos taped into the family albums. She shared stories of the photos with her grandchildren while they sprawled on the couches doing homework. “The children ask about the ways of the ancestors,” said Kay. “They ask about life from the past. How things were done back then. They mainly ask for stories of the past. We tell them how different things were utilized. With that, we are still teaching them.”
In the evening, five-year-old Kason followed his grandmother out to feed the sheep as the light faded. Caring for the livestock is a skill Kay learned from her mother and is now passing along to her grandchildren. For now, Kason mostly got underfoot as Kay moved slowly back and forth between the barn and the sheep, tossing handfuls of hay.
For too many families, these rhythms of daily life in multigenerational homes have been disrupted by the pandemic. These moments, when lost, are the quiet casualties of coronavirus. So far, the Atenes have been spared. They are still here, together.
Before returning indoors, Kay paused to watch the sun sink behind Train Rock. Kason has left her side, chasing after two of the family's pet dogs, Chewie and Bella. In the distance, Meta could be glimpsed returning from a prayer.
“My mother is here for my children and me,” Kay said. “We learn from her… This is called our teachings and, with that, we hold one another together. This is passed down to us from generations before.”
Personally, we were drawn to the story from our own experiences with multigenerational living in our families’ homes during the pandemic – for the first time since childhood. Experiencing and learning from the centuries-old Diné practice of multigenerational living was incredibly meaningful. It has shaped our personal perspectives on home and family, as we hope it will impact the viewers who engage with the project.
Funded by two grants from the National Geographic Society, we were able to practice slow journalism and create methods for collaborative reporting, which was particularly important working within a community that was not our own. The project was created over the span of four reporting trips to date, which included months of research, learning, and relationship-building before we gained access for documentation. That timeframe also allowed us to build a team of Diné impact producers, story consultants, fixers, and community members who played major roles in shaping the narrative as it evolved. These team members also provided critical knowledge and accountability to ensure the story would be accurate as well as culturally sensitive at every stage of the process.
Working during the height of the pandemic within a community that had been hard-hit by the coronavirus presented its own unique challenges, which we navigated by ensuring we had the time for regular rapid testing and the resources for full PPE, while conducting the majority of the reporting outdoors.
The project was created in collaboration with Protect the Sacred, Harness, CORE, Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, and the Utah Navajo Health System, among others. It was funded by the National Geographic Society and Getty Images.
Dorothea Sullivan- Associate Producer and Translation
Allie Young- Impact Production
Lynnea Hewey- Fixer
Erin Patrick O’Connor- Additional Drone Footage
Shira Goldstein & Angus Pollard - Logistical Support