Opinion: For Navajo, crowded homes have always been a lifeline. The pandemic threatens that.

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Kay Atene (67) surveys her family's land alongside her dog, Chester. For many elders, relocating even temporarily amidst the pandemic is interlaced with the past trauma of forced removal from their land, from the Long Walk to the lingering legacy of off-reservation boarding schools.
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Mimi Doctor, 86, lost her husband to covid-19 in May 2020. Elders over 65 account for approximately 60 percent of all deaths due to covid-19. “The role of elders is very important to the Native community. They are revered. They are our culture and language-bearers,” says Allie Young, founder of Protect the Sacred, a Navajo-led grass-roots initiative advocating for Diné culture and language preservation. (Hailey Sadler)
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Navajo Nation Select
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Navajo Nation Select
Navajo Nation Select
Navajo Nation Select
Navajo Nation Select
Navajo Nation Select
Navajo Nation Select
Navajo Nation Select
Navajo Nation Select
Navajo Nation Select
ONE TIME USE ONLY FOR OP-NAVAJO. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO SALES. NO TRADES. Any other usage must be licensed in writing by Hailey Sadler

Kay Atene’s family lives together on the same red earth in Oljato-Monument Valley in Utah that her great-grandparents returned to after surviving the “Long Walk” more than 150 years ago.

Generations living together is central to how the Navajo have navigated crises for centuries. But the coronavirus has put that in jeopardy: Crowded homes have become one of the deadliest places to be during the pandemic.

Covid-19 has hit Native communities harder than any other in the United States, with three times the hospitalization rate and two times the death rate as White communities. Even without a pandemic, “normal” on the Navajo Nation means a lack of clean water and health services, and higher levels of overcrowded, substandard housing than any other tribal land in America. If that’s not addressed, new covid strains or another health crisis will remain threats to the Diné, as the Navajo people call themselves.

Many Navajo, particularly elders, carry intergenerational trauma from the forced removal from their land by federal soldiers and placement in boarding schools off the reservation as recently as the 1970s. The trauma can resurface when families have to separate because of the pandemic. Elders need solutions to stay healthy — and together. Two-thirds of covid-related deaths on the reservation are Navajo over 65, whose language and cultural knowledge can fade with them. Numbers alone can’t quantify how deeply these losses reverberate throughout the Diné community.

Stretching 27,000 square miles across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the Navajo Nation is three times the size of New Jersey and home to about 400,000 people. Here, the practice of living together was born of both necessity and tradition.

Tuba City, Ariz., is the largest community in the reservation, with about 8,600 people. Oljato-Monument Valley, where Kay Atene lives, is home to fewer than 1,000. Many families live in rural communities of a few dozen people.

“We’ve been living in multigenerational homes for thousands of years,” says Pearl Yellowman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Community Development. “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.”

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Atene did not believe the pandemic could disrupt the rhythms of her 88-year-old mother, Meta, seen here preparing breakfast with her granddaughter, Endreya Hernandez-Cipriano, 12. But as the virus spread across the reservation, tightknit families such as hers have been at even more risk.

The risk extends beyond families. Meta learned traditional healing practices from her father, a medicine man. She is passing some of the knowledge to her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including Endreya, seen here picking herbs. The idea of losing aspects of Diné culture to covid-19 or displacement is “really scary” to Allie Young, founder of Protect the Sacred, a grass-roots organization working on cultural and language preservation. “That’s why we’re still here today,” she says, “because of our way of life, the herbs, the prayers, the songs. That’s how we have survived.”

When the coronavirus came to Oljato-Monument Valley, Rosita Parrish, 66, was among those who got sick. Her granddaughter Mariah Holiday, 26, returned to the reservation to be with her. After Parrish recovered, she taught Holiday how to process, card and spin wool from their sheep, then dye it with Navajo tea, sumac berries, sagebrush or beets.

In Diné culture, the concept of home is much more than a physical structure: It encompasses earth, heritage, community and identity. “For me, a huge part of home is reconnecting to who I am and where I come from,” says Holiday, sitting with her grandmother in the hogan her family hand-built.

Navajo families have long survived crises in close quarters. The pandemic merely underscores intersectional public health and housing emergencies fueled by broken federal promises, insufficient and mismanaged funds, lack of traditional home financing and chronic infrastructure shortages.

The covid-related American Rescue Plan Act is delivering what Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez describes as “possibly a once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to help future generations: $1.8 billion is allocated to the tribe, nearly $50 million of which is dedicated to block grants for affordable housing. For now, though, immediate solutions are needed to address the demand for extra space.

Homes in the Navajo Nation are generally smaller and 6.5 times more overcrowded than the average U.S. home, according to the Navajo Housing Authority. Here Endreya, left, spends time in the room her sister, Janet Hernandez-Cipriano, 16, shares with other relatives. Endreya sleeps on the couch.

When Janet contracted the coronavirus, she stayed outside in the family’s hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling, visible through the window. They are fortunate: Having a shelter outside the home can make the difference between life and death.

Safety for some families has come in the form of 8-by-15-foot “tiny homes” that Navajo teams are building with the support of the Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) and the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. “This isn’t just about building a physical structure,” says CORE Area Director Shira 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.”

These shelters are intended to provide extra space for either the most vulnerable or most exposed family member to stay apart from the main home. This reduces exposure to other relatives without removing them from their land or loved ones. So far, 300 shelters have been built since the program’s launch in June 2020.

Jasmine Johnson, 5, watches the first wall go up on the tiny home she will share with her grandmother in Rough Rock, Ariz. Her parents and two brothers will stay in the main house behind it.

Winifred Harvey, 36, says receiving a tiny home “is a relief.” For months she lived in fear that her husband, a construction worker, would contract the virus and carry it to her mother’s two-bedroom house, where they live with their five children. Then, in January 2021, he tested positive. He had nowhere to go but home. “We tried to get the kids to sleep with their masks on to keep it from spreading,” Harvey recounts. “There is no extra space, so he was sleeping on the couch, and my mom had to leave the home.” The precautions weren’t enough: Harvey and three of her kids got covid-19.

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The structures are not built to last forever, nor do they make up for the estimated 34,000 homes needed across the reservation. But the extra space is critical for families to distance. Here, Calais Chee, 5, closes the door on the shelter his grandmother, Bertha Secody, is using as her permanent home steps away from the rest of the family in Tuba City, Ariz.

Without extra space, families are forced to seek options beyond their home. Government-sponsored hotel stays are helping prevent the virus from spreading in overcrowded quarters. Here, Bobbie Benally and Brandon Yazzie stand outside the Travelodge by Wyndham, a quarantine site in Farmington, N.M. They checked in less than 24 hours after testing positive for covid-19. “I’m not even sure what I brought with me,” says Benally. “We were just panicking. We left as fast as we could.” Their biggest fear was infecting Yazzie’s grandmother, who raised him since he was three.

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There is reason for hope: The tribal government’s vaccination campaign was one of the more effective in the United States. Nearly half the residents within the Navajo Indian Health Service Area have been fully vaccinated, outpacing many U.S. states. For those in tight living quarters, being vaccinated can mean feeling safe around family for the first time in more than a year. In this photo, Tyler and Emily Kitseallyboy ride with their grandparents to receive their second vaccine dose at a distribution event at Shiprock High School in Shiprock, N.M.

Entering a new era of infectious diseases, Indigenous communities must be central to the public health conversation. Community-driven approaches to housing development and modernization are required to meet the unique cultural, regulatory and environmental landscape of the Navajo Nation.

Creative fixes should be a bridge to permanent solutions. Real protection for Indigenous elders and their children must be addressed at both the tribal and federal levels. If they are not prioritized, what stands to be lost is immense.

About this story

Videos by Darian Woehr and photos by Hailey Sadler of the Home Collective. Associate production and translation by Dorothea Sullivan. Impact production by Allie Young. Fixer Lynnea Hewey. Additional drone footage by Erin Patrick O’Connor. Project editing by Kate Woodsome. Design and development by Yan Wu. Graphics by Sergio Peçanha. Copy editing by Eric Althoff. This project was produced with support from the National Geographic Society.