Last March, COVID-19, or the “invisible monster” as we call it, made its way into our 27,000-square-mile reservation. Three weeks later, Dinétah (Navajo Nation) became one of the hardest hit communities in the United States; the number one “hotspot” in the country per capita. Now, one year later, we are making headlines again for proving our strength and resiliency. Although too many lives were lost to the invisible monster, we have finally taken back control and mitigated the spread of COVID-19. Our vaccine rollout has been highly successful, a model for the rest of the country, and we are continuing to protect our sacred elders, languages, and cultures—as we have done for centuries.

So much has changed in the last year, but it also feels like not much has changed at all. We are still fighting our way through a pandemic, and the death toll is still climbing. I can’t help but think about the families in my tribal community who are rejoicing because of the vaccine rollout while simultaneously mourning the loss of their loved ones, and feeling a sense of guilt that they didn’t make it to this point.

The author shortly after receiving her first COVID-19 shot.

Courtesy Allie Young

My heart aches for our elders, whose lives are being taken at a higher rate than the rest of our population. More than 60 percent of the 1,194 deaths in the Navajo Nation were people 60 years of age and older. Our elders are the keepers of our ancestral knowledge, our sacred ceremonies and traditional ways, and our most fluent Diné language speakers. They are the culture bearers of Indigenous communities, whose deep knowledge is passed down to younger generations. This process takes time, because of the cultural and language revitalization, and restoration that has to happen first due to centuries of cultural genocide and forced assimilation.

I am fortunate that my closest friends and family are still alive and have now been vaccinated. But not all of them escaped the invisible monster. My grandparents contracted the virus around the holidays. They are both 81 and at serious risk for complications. My cheii (or grandfather in Diné) is our family’s spiritual compass, my cultural teacher, and a respected medicine man in my Diné tribe. He is the reason I fight so hard for the protection of our elders. We don’t have as many medicine people as we once did, and we are still learning so much from those who know our most sacred songs and ceremonies.

Thankfully, through prayer and with the help of our medicines and herbs, my grandparents both got through COVID without experiencing any harsh symptoms. Many others were not so lucky. Among those who didn’t make it through were many important elders, medicine people, and leaders, including former Navajo Nation President Albert Hale, who was a champion for tribal sovereignty. His death in February hit Navajo Nation hard, but he left behind a legacy of great honor, resiliency, and fierce advocacy for his people. It was a wake-up call that our elders and leaders are still dying almost a year into the pandemic.

allie young's grandparents sitting in chairs, peter is wearing a cowboy hat and maggie is in a brown dress wearing a beaded necklace and blue surgical mask

The author’s grandparents, Peter and Maggie Carlston of the Navajo Nation.

Courtesy Allie Young

I got to witness the beginnings of our tribal nation turning the page to a brighter future. Just 12 days before Christmas, the Pfizer vaccine landed in Navajo Nation, and went first to our frontline workers, who have been putting their lives on the line for our people. It was beautiful to see one of my dear friends, a Diné surgeon, get her first dose. She took a seat, lifted the sleeve of her scrubs, and smiled.

After months and months of devastation, continued trauma in our communities, and great sadness for the loss of many of our relatives, it felt like a sign of hope for the first time in a very long time.

Since the initial rollout for frontline and essential workers, Navajo Nation and tribal communities across the country have been supplied with both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. When my grandparents got vaccinated, I let out a sigh of relief. It was a celebration, because I could finally be physically close to them, and that made them the happiest they had been in a while.

parking lot entrance to a navajo nation vaccine site

One of the vaccine sites in Navajo Nation.

Courtesy Allie Young

Native American communities are now ahead of all other demographics in vaccination rates. We are showing what is possible when tribes are given autonomy and are able to practice true sovereignty. At the beginning of the pandemic, tribal nations weren’t even considered in the initial stimulus package. The lack of immediate relief for Indigenous communities left us vulnerable and ravaged.

When our communities were eventually given sufficient resources, including access to the vaccine, and left to implement our own rollout plans, we gained back some control over the spread of the virus on our reservations.

The vaccination rate is increasing, and the infection rate is decreasing in Navajo Nation. We are doing this together as a community to ensure the safety of those most precious to us. We are beginning to heal, and I am so proud of my people and our youth for channeling the legacy of our ancestors’ resilience to defeat COVID-19.

For my people and the rest of the country, I continue to burn cedar, which we pray with in ceremony and in life. I let the smoke carry my prayers for restoration, clarity, and balance. We will get through this.

This story is part of ELLE’s Lost and Found: One Year in Quarantine. Click here to read all the stories in this package.

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