A century of federal indifference left generations of Navajo homes without running water

When Julie Badonie was growing up in the small Navajo community of Tohatchi in the 1940s, her father drove a horse-drawn wagon early each morning to a nearby spring. There, he filled wooden barrels with water the family would use that day to drink, cook, and wash. 

Badonie, the youngest of seven children, including brothers who fought in World War II and the Korean War, or one of her siblings would go along. She remembers it as fun. At home, a hose siphoned the water into buckets to bring into the house. Badonie left for boarding school in kindergarten, first just a few miles across town, then several days’ travel away in Crownpoint, where an older sister worked as a cook, and eventually, all the way to Albuquerque for high school.

As water reaches eastern Navajo communities, it brings possibilities and homecomings

For a while, Chee Smith Jr. thought he was going to have to send his father to die among strangers. His family lives at Whitehorse Lake, a Navajo chapter where, until a few years ago, roughly 550 of 700 residents had no running water in their homes, including Smith’s. As Smith’s father aged and his health worsened, it became harder and harder for him to live at home. “We had to haul water from the chapterhouse or the watering points every day for just basic things — for cooking, for laundry, for stuff like that, and also for our livestock,” Smith said. “It takes a big toll.

It’s unclear whether vaccines are reaching hardest hit New Mexico communities

As New Mexico continues to amp up vaccine distribution, health officials don’t appear to be allocating a greater number of doses to those living in low-income areas that have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those areas include McKinley County, the southern border region, and communities in central New Mexico where some of the highest rates of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths have occurred. 

Other than some targeted distribution to congregant facilities like nursing homes and prisons, as well as health care and medical workers, the state is taking an approach of calling up individuals who’ve registered on the state vaccine portal. People are prioritized based on various risk categories, such as age, underlying conditions, or being an essential worker. “…basically we’re randomizing them to see who will receive that vaccine dose,” New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. It’s an approach designed to ensure there is no favoritism in vaccine access, Collins said. 

But the hardest hit populations are low income communities that are disproportionately Native American and Latino, Black and other communities of color, and there is currently no publicly available information about whether or not vaccine distribution is sufficiently reaching these groups.

A historic year, learning loss threatens recent educational gains

Even by the most optimistic standards, the logistics of learning in 2020 have been difficult, if not close to impossible, for a significant number of New Mexico students. Technological challenges have combined with trauma caused by COVID-19’s deadly rampage through hard-hit populations, especially the state’s Indigenous communities, to disrupt classrooms and educational plans. More than 32,000 students — or one of every 10 enrolled in public education statewide — have been referred to a state-sponsored coaching program, many for being disengaged, regularly missing classes, or in danger of failing one or more classes. Less than a quarter are participating, however. And more than half of those, or 5,173 students, are in need of the most help, according to the state education officials, meaning they endure significant on-going barriers and are receiving regular interventions, sometimes daily.Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart and his staff didn’t mince words about the severity of the challenge in a December presentation of the education agency’s 2022 budgetary request to state lawmakers. 

Learning losses caused by the pandemic — particularly for at-risk students, which make up a majority of New Mexico’s student population — will likely weaken already low student outcomes, according to the 13-page memo.“Additionally, school closures and remote learning have had a dramatic impact on enrollment in many school districts, leading some school district leaders to worry about the pandemic’s impact on their school district’s finances,” they added.The state education agency went on to ask the legislators for $4 million in emergency funds, citing the possible need for additional grants in light of enrollment shifts in school districts and increased costs related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

COVID disparities force a public health reckoning

The coronavirus feels the way it looks in widely circulated images, said Cleo Otero: like a thorn. “That’s how it felt inside my body, especially my lungs. It was painful. Like it was scratching the inside of your body. I could really literally feel the virus inside my body.” 

Otero’s first clue she was sick came at the laundromat in Albuquerque where she usually buys a bag of spicy chips as she waits on her clothes.

Mutual aid groups rushed to the rescue during COVID-19

Just enough to get people through — not a gallon of bleach, but a 4-ounce mason jar of it, half a dozen diapers, a few cups of beans, a bag of potatoes, some vegetables, a pound of hamburger meat. Almost every day, Albuquerque Mutual Aid volunteers sanitize and pack items, then load them into cars. Wearing masks and gloves, they drop care packages at people’s doors and photograph them to confirm delivery. 

The goal: fast, responsive care, particularly for those who might fall through the cracks. 

“All the barriers that people run into when they’re trying to access food, that’s what we try to address,” said Selinda Guerrero, with Fight For Our Lives. The organization pulled together with other groups to help people as the COVID-19 pandemic threw some New Mexicans out of work or made venturing out a risk they didn’t want to take. 

Roughly 90 volunteers help buy and sort groceries. They take donated food, too, including granola bars and cereal from General Mills that would otherwise be thrown away.