Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

June 1, 2020

Dineh Loren Tapahe 'My sister is not a number'

Emily (on right) with her twin sister Imogene at Christmas.
My Sister is Not a Number

By Loren Tapahe, Dine'
Published with permission at Censored News

This story is for all the uncelebrated beautiful and kind Navajo sisters or daughters who have helped their families and friends whenever and wherever they could throughout their lives. Maybe they didn’t get a college degree or change the world with a new invention but were smart enough to live through difficult years of the 1940’s and 50’s and help their parents, grandparents, their siblings and nieces and nephews.

I also write story this to honor my sister Emily, who passed away May 24, 2020 due to the Coronavirus at the Little Sisters of the Poor Assisted Living Center in Gallup, NM. This story is to also help others to let them know they are not alone in their grieving.

As we would get updates on those infected and on deaths in Arizona, New Mexico and on the Navajo Nation, the numbers at that time did not have a face or a name personal to me. But, now they do.

The number shown on TV that day increased by one more and this time I knew who it was.

Nationally, somewhere between 95,000 and 101,000 my sister’s death was counted. And, with the Navajo count it may have been between 110 and 159.

Her death was included on a chart shown to the world. Her death, not her life was just a number. What a shame it is to read about the numbers and not take time to think about the people—the lives that represent the numbers.

Emily was a twin and she and her twin sister Imogene were the oldest of my brothers and sisters. There were nine kids. Now, they are all gone, except for one-me. Imogene died of cancer in 1991 and Emily, died just last Sunday. She was 80 years young.

She had some health issues but my family was hopeful she would not catch the Coronavirus. After her assisted care center had one case in mid-April, it exploded to five the next week, then 10, then 15. Soon there were 5 deaths and counting. Tests were given weekly and those infected were moved to a quarantine room. My family and Emily’s extended family would breathe a sign of relief each week for three weeks when Emily’s test would come back negative.

But about two weeks ago, her weekly test came back positive. Within 7 days she would be gone. For a short while it seemed she was holding her own and that the virus was not progressing, but one day it rapidly overtook her lungs.

Many Navajo sisters and daughters like my sisters left the reservation to go to a boarding school away from home for high school. Some went to Santa Fe, NM, Holbrook, Phoenix or Intermountain School in northern Utah. Traveling away from their original homeland for the first time for nine months at a time.

My sisters were shipped away from family and Din├Ętah at the tender age of 13. The twins were inseparable, so away they went to Intermountain School for the next four years. Going by Greyhound bus at the beginning of the year and returning on the bus again at the end of the school year.

After graduation from Intermountain school, my sister Emily went to San Francisco, California, and her twin sister went to Ogden, Utah for work. Like so many other teenagers after the boarding school experience they were placed in workplaces not of their own choosing, often times away from their homeland. The art of forced assimilation was still alive and well.

After working as home care technicians for several years they both entered the beauty salon industry as manicurist, Imogene in Ogden and Emily in Salt Lake City.

For several years in a row, when I was 10 to 13-years of age my older brother and I would visit them during the summer months. I think my mom just wanted to get us out of her hair. One summer my best friend from 9th grade came along. We were treated by my sisters to all the movies we wanted, all the take-out food we wanted and we swam and played basketball just about every day at the local Deseret Gym. When the summers ended, my sisters would buy school clothes for my brother and I, and even for my best friend the summer that he came along. My sisters were good to me and to anyone who walked through their doors.

As a family, we visited them several times and my 18-year old older brother wanted to learn to drive in the city, ended up going the wrong way on a one-way street a few times. We all had a good laugh after the fright wore off.

My sisters would always be waiting for us to take us out to dinner and show us the big city. They were our tour guides to the first big city we knew. They didn’t have cars because they were afraid to drive in a big city. They had mastered the city bus routes anyway, for evening or weekend outings. They each had an apartment close to their work so they could walk to work.

Emily (on left) with twin sister Imogene.

I would later learn a couple of my nephews were treated the same way. When they went to visit, they were treated to video game centers; they ate out, and went to movies.

Year-after-year, visiting my sisters in Utah was the highlight of the year. Something I looked forward to for many years and will fondly remember.

My twin sisters never married, because they always felt their mother and family came first. So they would send money home to mom and welcomed our family to their humble apartments. Emily had a single bedroom apartment and when family came to visit, at night there was wall-to-wall Tapahe carpeting.

Emily and Imogene had kind and loving hearts. They would do anything for someone when asked. Despite the hardships or setbacks they experienced in life, it never dimmed their love of their family and to help their mother. They were teased and bullied while growing up but they were always respectful to others. I never heard them speak an unkind word toward anyone publicly or privately.

When mom retired and when I went off to college, Imogene came home and lived with mom to help her with the sheep and cornfield. When Imogene died of cancer in 1991, Emily came home to live with mom and to takeover where her sister left off.

Emily out-lived her mother, Susie by three years and now we will lay her down to rest on Monday, June 1, 2020 at the Fort Defiance, AZ cemetery. People are not allowed to attend Coronavirus victim burial except for only five people who are allowed at the gravesite. These will be the pallbearers. Friends and relatives may, however, view the gravesite services from inside your vehicle from the parking lot.

She will be happy to see her twin sister once again and to herd the 300 sheep and goats with mom and grandpa like when they were in their youth. Mom had a dream before she passed that she, Imogene and my grandpa would be herding sheep. “He will be at the front, Imogene at the right and I will be at the back,” she would say. But now, Emily will join them and she will be on the left.


I will miss Emily and dining with her at her favorite restaurant in Gallup, Earl's. This past Christmas and New Year’s holidays, she stayed with us and we had conversations on who lives where and how many kids they have. It was a fun time. We went to the movie, went to Golden Coral and worked on jigsaw puzzles. I felt Emily had at least ten more years.

My niece and her kids took care of Emily for several years before Emily began living at the care center. My niece became like a daughter to her and my niece’s kids became very attached to her. I am sure they will miss Emily too.

I know that there are tens-of-thousands of sisters and aunts that went through similar experiences as my sisters. I honor them and I am proud of them.

Like my sister who passed because of the Coronavirus, they too are not numbers, but lives with their own stories. My sister didn’t deserve this virus and neither did the others.

I am extremely grateful to the staff and nurses at Little Sisters of the Poor (LSOP) who took loving care of Emily for past few years and especially when they would connect my family by video through our cell phone to talk with Emily when she was in quarantine.

A heartfelt appreciation goes to Sister Rose at LSOP, for connecting me to Emily by phone in her final moments so she didn’t feel alone. I couldn't be at her bedside because of the Coronavirus quarantine.

My heart goes out to the doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers everywhere who witness this slow tragedy taking place first-hand. Many of them take the place of family and hold the hands of those in their final moments. May the Creator bless them and their families with strength and continued protection from the Coronavirus.

I plead with you to wear a mask when you are in public. If you are sick, please stay home. The numbers represents lives and it needs to go down---to zero.

With this story, I hope the Navajo Nation leadership will declare a Day of Remembrance for all Navajo persons who died of the Coronavirus soon after a vaccine is found and given to all people in order to give family and relatives a chance to publicly honor their lives.

I urge others to write stories of the lives of their loved ones who died due to the Coronavirus, so their stories can be shared with family and their children and grandchildren, and for all people to remember their beautiful stories.

May the Creator bless our Navajo people with protection against the Coronavirus.

If you wish to send a card or letter to Emily's relatives or to donate funds for the burial expenses, please send to Loren Tapahe, 948 East Grandview, Mesa, AZ 85203. Thank you for all your support to Emily.

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