Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

October 19, 2022

Navajo and Hopi Relief Fund Honored by ALANA Foundation

ALANA Foundation Recognizes the Work of the Navajo and Hopi Relief Fund

Censored News

CH'ÍHOOTSOOÍ, DINÉTAH, WINDOW ROCK, NAVAJO NATION -- On Saturday, October 15, the ALANA Foundation recognized the work of the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund by awarding founder and Executive Director, Ethel Branch, the Navajo Community Hero Award.

The ALANA Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to address inequalities in healthcare by improving access and quality of healthcare for at-risk members of the Phoenix metropolitan area.

According to ALANA Foundation Board Treasurer, Corina Gomez, the Relief Fund was chosen for leadership in mobilizing millions of dollars in funding and hundreds of volunteers to protect Navajo and Hopi Communities during the pandemic.

The award was presented during the ALANA Foundation’s annual gala and fundraiser that was held at the Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix, Arizona.

In her acceptance speech, Branch said that her experience working in environmental justice helped guide her journey to create the Relief Fund.

“When the pandemic hit, the healthcare conditions of our community were at the forefront of my mind,” Branch said. “When I read the list of immune compromised conditions it was like I was reading the health profile of my community: diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and upper respiratory conditions.”

The Navajo population experiences disproportionate rates of cancer due to the Navajo Nation being a national sacrifice area for the last century. During the Cold War era, over 30 million tons of uranium were extracted from the Nation at over 500 abandoned uranium mine sites.

When the Navajo Generating Station was operational, it was the dirtiest coal fire-burning plant in the United States, and the Four Corners Region serves as the highest carbon dioxide-emitting region in the Western Hemisphere. This overburdening of coal production on and near the Navajo Nation has led to the disproportionate incidence of upper respiratory illnesses among Navajo people.

Yet even while the energy produced on Navajo land fueled the growth and development of Phoenix and the entire southwestern United States, many Navajo families remain without power.

“One-third of my people still don’t have electricity,” she said. “Many of our families had transmission lines running electricity south, by their homes, while they themselves didn’t enjoy that basic 21st century living condition.”

Additionally, one-third of Navajo and Hopi people living on the two nations lack piped water. The pandemic made frequent hand washing essential to survival in the face of COVID-19, and made this inaccessible luxury for water hauling families a matter of life or death.

Conditions like these triggered a critical alert for Branch as the pandemic began to spread across the United States and the Navajo Nation in early 2020. It was then that she reached out to a group of Indigenous matriarchs to form the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund.

To date, under Branch’s steady leadership, the Relief Fund has provided over $12M in COVID relief to nearly half a million Navajo and Hopi elderly, immune compromised, and economically vulnerable tribal members living on the Navajo and Hopi nations (this calculation counts each service event anew; some people were served multiple times).

Navajo Hopi Relief volunteers. Photo collage Censored News.

Roughly 361,584 of these tribal members received food, water, and PPE through the Relief Fund’s Direct Relief Programs, and over 146,000 adults and children received PPE through its PPE Distribution Program.

In the first phase of COVID response, between March 15, 2020, and March 26, 2021, the Relief Fund was able to provide an average of $100,000 to $200,000 worth of direct relief to Navajo and Hopi communities every week.

“In the first phase of our work, it was critical that we provided food in addition to PPE to our people because of the breakdown in national supply chain systems, tribal government-imposed lockdowns, and extreme food desert conditions on the Navajo and Hopi nations where we have only 13 grocery stores in a jurisdiction the size of West Virginia,” said Branch. “Our next phase of operations was more focused on the sick and exposed.”

In the second phase of COVID response, during the Delta and Omicron surges in 2021 and 2022, Relief Fund teams provided on-demand and home-delivered isolation kits to sick and exposed that included oximeters, thermometers, and items to alleviate COVID symptoms in addition to food, water, and PPE.

Overall, the Relief Fund distributed over 10 million masks to the Navajo and Hopi people.

To staff these programs, the Relief Fund mobilized hundreds of mostly Navajo and Hopi volunteers who established 30 distribution teams and two seamstress squads across the Navajo and Hopi nations. Branch refers to these local defenders and heroes as “frontline warriors.” “Without them and their valiant efforts, there would have been no Relief Fund pandemic response. I hate to think about what would have happened to our communities without them holding the line on life during this difficult time.”

The Relief Fund provided wood and coal heating resources to 4,422 elders in over 80 communities on the Navajo and Hopi nations, and provided PPE to medical staff, first responders, and high contact individuals living and working on the two nations.

They also distributed hand washing stations to 1,103 Navajo and Hopi households that lack indoor plumbing, and conducted a pro-vaccine campaign that reached an estimated 857,000 Navajo and Hopi tribal members (counting each likely contact once; some people were reached multiple times).

Branch was presented the award by Dineh Benally, the President of the San Juan River Farm Board and former 2022 Navajo Nation Presidential candidate. Benally was the keynote speaker at the gala.

“She (Branch) could have been selfish and just worried about her family, but she worried about her people, the Navajo people. She worried about the Hopi Nation as well,” Benally said. “Thank you, Ethel, for your time and your big heart.”

Benally and Branch recognized the efforts of the Relief Fund team members in attendance, who included Arizona State Senator Theresa Hatathlie-Delmar, Logistics Coordinator, Vanessa Tullie, Board Treasurer, Mary Francis, Direct Relief Program Manager, and Mihio Manus, Public Relations Director.

“We do our work out of deep love and compassion for our people, not for the accolades. But it’s nice to get recognized for the incredible effectiveness of our team,” Branch said. “Thank you to the tireless and fierce Diné Asdzáán and Hopi women leaders, and the incredibly brave and unbelievably hard-working frontline warriors, phenomenal partners, and amazing worldwide donors who made it possible for us to protect our communities during one of the darkest moments in our history.”

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