Making a difference for the Navajo Nation and other tribes

Jami Harvey and Heather Tanana

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Heather Tanana and Jami Harvey are both members of the Navajo Nation. In this episode, they share perspectives on how coronavirus has impacted the Navajo community as well as other tribes in Utah. Jami, a junior at the U, will be collecting stories about community members’ experiences as part of an undergraduate research project, while Heather, a research professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, is leading a major relief effort. Want to help? Visit Recorded on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get to learn about the people who are helping the U achieve new heights. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the university, and my guests today are Heather Tanana and Jami Harvey.

Both Heather and Jami are members of the Navajo Nation. Jami is pursuing a psychology degree at the U. She served as a presidential intern last year, working with me and my office. And she's now working on earning a degree so that she can support early childhood education in her community.

Heather is a research associate, the Wallace Stegner Center Fellow, and an assistant professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. Heather founded the Indian Law section of the Utah State Bar and is the chair of the Bar's Indian Child Welfare Act Committee.

Welcome Heather and Jami! It's a delight to be with you today.

Heather Tanana: Thank you for having us.

President Watkins: Heather, tell us a little bit about yourself. I think the listeners would be interested in your background and also a little bit about what you're doing at the S.J. Quinney College of Law.

Heather Tanana: Sure. So, if you're talking with the Navajo, usually we're going to begin by introducing our clans. And on my father's side, I'm Kinyaa'áanii, the Towering House clan, and I'm born for the Black Streak Wood People. And then on my mother's side, I'm of Anglo and European descent. And I was actually born in Montezuma Creek, which is about as far south as you can get in Utah, in the Navajo reservation. My dad is a physician who’s dedicated his entire life towards the healthcare of our native community. So, it was really his example throughout my life that instilled this desire and need to always give back to our community when we're able to. He's been a big influence on me. I'm a U of U law school graduate and I hold an MPH from Johns Hopkins.

President Watkins: That's great. And we're so fortunate to have you in the College of Law and really supporting the legacy of Wallace Stegner, a remarkable part of the University of Utah's story. So, delighted you're here. Jami, I think listeners would be very interested in your background. So, give a little bit of your story.

Jami Harvey: Absolutely. I am also from Montezuma Creek, Utah, a very small town. I'm Navajo in Southeastern Utah, the most Northern part of the Navajo reservation. I would like to introduce myself too and I'm going to do it Navajo, if that's okay. Yá’át’ééh, Shí éí Jami Harvey yinishyé. Shí éí Bit'ahnii nishłį, Tł'ááshchí'í bashishhiin, Kinłichii'nii dashicheii, Táchii'nii dashinalí. Shimá dóó shizhé’é éí Cheryle Harvey dóó Jamie Harvey wolyé.

I know that I'm from the Folded Arms People clan, born for the Red Bottom People clan. The rest of my clans constitute of the color red, and I think that's vitally important and I like to point out that there's a lot of red that runs in my veins and, being a student at the U, it's a lot of fun.

President Watkins: I think it was meant to be Jami!

Jami Harvey: I definitely agree! I earned my associate's degree of science with an emphasis in chemistry from BYU Hawaii. I had the opportunity to work in the local health department in Southeast Utah as a vital records registrar, working on birth and death certificates, and within Utah WIC— the Women, Infants and Children Program—and had the opportunity to work as the community liaison for Help Me Grow Utah. I've decided that I will not be satisfied until I earn a doctorate degree in anything. So currently, as a junior at the U, I've had the opportunity to learn so many things, as a presidential intern as mentioned by President Watkins.

As the president of the Inter Tribal Student Association on campus, a member of the institute choir on-campus, as well. I also have the opportunity to, in the summers, teach for a program called (MS)2, or Math & Science for Minority Students, at Phillips Academy Andover in Andover, Massachusetts. That's a little bit of my background.

President Watkins: That's extraordinary. And Jami, I think you're going to be working in the president's office again this year, if I understand correctly. Is that right?

Jami Harvey: That's right and I look forward to it. There's so much more learning that I get to do.

President Watkins: Well, Heather, I have heard a little bit about the relief effort that you organized for tribal communities. Tell us about that and a little bit about what motivated you.

Heather Tanana: So, like was mentioned, I chaired the Indian Child Welfare Act Committee, which is part of the Indian Law section of the State Bar. And it's a group of different professionals from different backgrounds. Some of us are attorneys, some are social workers, psychologists, but a vast majority of us are native ourselves. And certainly, all of us worked with tribal communities in some capacity. And so as the pandemic started progressing, we were hearing from family members or tribal partners that we worked with, about the struggles they were encountering. And really, we talked about it one meeting, came up again at the next, and we decided we had to do something about it.

So I led that effort, but it would not have been the success it's been without the many state agency partners and other organizations that have joined us. It's really a lot of individual actions that came together to have a huge impact. And again, my motivation primarily stemmed from my personal family being affected. Few weeks back, my aunt actually passed away from COVID-19, and it was really heartbreaking for our family. I mean, I can really only just barely talk about it without tearing up because you can't grieve for people the same way that you could outside of the pandemic. We couldn't gather together and honor her life. And we often say our children are our future, but the raising of our children in native communities involves such a key role for our elders. They pass down the traditions and our cultural knowledge, so every time we lose an elder, I mean, it's just really devastating.

President Watkins: Yeah. I'm so sorry for your loss. And also, that, as you say, the normal ways that we come together for comfort and celebration of life have been so disrupted by the pandemic, and that has to make the grieving process much more difficult, and also the fear element and anxiety around the pandemic. Jami, you have been back home, I believe, since the University of Utah went to remote learning in the middle of March. You are experiencing this really on the ground. Give listeners a little bit of perspective about what that's like right now.

Jami Harvey: Absolutely. It is definitely a new normal. When they say new normal, it's a lot different than I expected. It's nice being home, being near family, but the constant fear of being infected or going out and having to do something and realizing if you didn't know you're infected, you could potentially be infecting someone. I think about my family here and the things that we have to do. We don't have running water. We barely have electricity. And to be able to get those resources, you'd have to leave where you're living. Like to haul water. You have to heat up water on a gas stove or over an open fire to bathe. And to get groceries, people travel. And I think about where it's affected us most here in Southeastern Utah, the two hotspots, Montezuma Creek and Monument Valley, when people have to travel off the reservation to go grocery shopping to get basic necessities. And that's a huge problem because their nearest grocery store here in Montezuma Creek is in Colorado.

And so we're this tiny nation that is influenced by four states—Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. And each state had a different reaction and different plan and decision that they made in response to COVID-19. And you think about how our nation is compared to the size of West Virginia. We only have 13 grocery stores on our land. And it's really concerning to have so many people have to worry about all of that. And I think that's something a lot of people don't see is that we're here. We're really trying hard to survive. We're doing our best, remaining hopeful.

President Watkins: Yeah. It's such an important perspective of how very challenging this health crisis is for the Navajo Nation. Truly heartbreaking. So, Jami, one of the things that has happened on campus and in Salt Lake is that when a person is ill or even has been in close contact with someone who's ill, the recommendation is that they isolate away from others, in order to reduce spread of disease. Is that possible in the Navajo Nation communities? A little perspective on that would be helpful for listeners.

Jami Harvey: President Watkins, in most cases it seems like that is—we know it is what we should be doing and self-quarantining, stay away from our family. Heather did mention that there are large families who do live together And that's definitely the case that we see down here. And I definitely have seen that public education is something that's not being kept everywhere in our area. People do have these families, they don't want to be separated from their families. And when they're diagnosed with COVID-19, there are resources that do provide, like Utah Navajo Health Systems, a room for these people to successfully self-isolate in a hotel room that's being paid for. And still, often there's a disconnect in not wanting to leave their family and not seeing the importance. We really need to be able to stop the spread of COVID-19.

President Watkins: I would say that's very understandable that there's a lot of fear and anxiety around both being alone and separate from your family, and the role that everyone plays in their family. So, important to promote health and safety, but also understandable that that would be frightening for people. I'm empathetic.


In the relief effort that you organized, give listeners a little perspective on what you did and how you delivered that assistance.

Heather Tanana: So, we've been collecting, in terms of items, anything from hand sanitizer, household disinfectants, paper goods, masks. Focusing on the items that will help the community family members safely isolate if they need to and quarantine themselves, not so much of the medical. There are other groups that are focusing on PPE for medical providers. Our focus is much more on community, family members, helping them out. And the response was just amazing. Really, much more than we ever thought it would be. We thought we'd send a couple truck loads down to Southern Utah, and we ended up sending about 45 planes. And they carried 19,000 pounds of items down to families in Montezuma Creek and Navajo Mountain for the Utah Navajo Health System to distribute. And we really couldn't have done that without the partnership of Backcountry Pilots, this group of pilots that answered the call to help out. So they were really indispensable and amazing on that day, when we did those deliveries.

And then aside from that large drop-off, we've also done multiple trips to other tribes, loading up trailers and vehicles, people volunteering their time to make those deliveries. And again, that same goal of getting hand sanitizer, disinfectants, paper toilet. Thank goodness we have paper toilet in our stores now, but for a long time, my parents in Monument Valley, they were able to buy one roll at a time.

And, like Jami mentioned, there just aren't a lot of resources down there. So, it's still helpful to get items. Food items, non-perishable. Really, again, anything to help these families get through this.

President Watkins: Really remarkable coordination effort that was required to make that happen. And as you say, the hands and support of many. So thank you so much for your leadership and making that happen. I think, Heather, maybe you'd comment a little bit on, if we have listeners who are motivated and want to be helpful, how you would direct their energies and what you would suggest would be most helpful things to do. And maybe a little bit about your own experience in mobilizing a lot of different agencies and organizations, to Jami's point, about how complicated it is when you have so many different governing structures, to actually get this kind of support and assistance that communities need most.

Heather Tanana: Yeah. So there's a lot of different organizations and groups that are helping out right now. And what I want to emphasize is that all of that help is really needed, right? Our cases surpass 6,600, Navajo Nation deaths are over 300. And so I think it's easy for individuals to look and say, "Well, okay, Navajo Nation's received their CARES Act funding now. So aren't they okay? No, they're going to be fine." And the reality is, no. Jami highlighted all these underlying infrastructure, real challenges that aren't going to be fixed in a day. They're going to take years, if we address them now, to fix. To get water lines in.

So that's kind of my first point, right? Help is still needed, and small donation amounts or items amounts are going to be useful. And in terms of groups that can help, Navajo Nation, you can directly donate to them. But the grassroots organizations are really doing a great job of getting out to those families that don't have vehicles, that may not have access to social media to see when there's a drive-through to get supplies. And that's what our group has been doing, working with kind of community groups to distribute supplies. And it's a Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief, that's our group. We have a website that has information about what we're doing at the moment and as we evolve, and that's on the site, and we're collecting monetary donations and item donations.

And the thing about our group that's a little different is we are focused on all eight of Utah's federally recognized tribes. So certainly Navajo has the greatest need right now with the highest cases, but our other tribal communities have similar situations or circumstances like Navajo. Higher number of people living in the home, right? Things like that, that make it more challenging to fight COVID. And so we want to make sure that our other tribes are doing the best they can, so they don't get in a situation like Navajo Nation.

President Watkins: No, thank you very much. So listeners, the call to you, Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief, Indian Law at the Utah Bar Association. You will be able to find it if you look online, and I think we're hearing a message that the need continues and your help would be very welcome.

Jami, you're doing a summer research project this year, and I think undergrads involved in research really make a difference at the University of Utah. We'd love to hear a little bit more about the work that you're doing and hope to accomplish this summer.

Jami Harvey: Absolutely. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to work with the UROP Program, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program on campus. I have the opportunity to work in a whole different discipline than I am in, psychology versus oral history, and it's been great learning and continuing to process this different discipline and learn about new methods. I love all aspects of it.

My project is focusing on the impact of community responses to COVID-19, and how it really and truly affects cultural values and cultural practices during this time. And many times, it is those who live off the reservation or aren't from our area who tend to tell our story. And it's interesting to learn and to realize the power that we have as people. We have a voice that deserves to be shared and preserved, and I hope that part of my project highlights that and it gives that opportunity to people who are in my community, surrounding community, to be able to voice that as best as they can, as well.

President Watkins: That's spectacular, Jami. Exciting, interesting, and important. I have to say my favorite thing about Fridays is the StoryCorps show on NPR. I don't know if you've ever had the chance to listen to that, but it is the most amazing thing to hear people's stories. And you have so much to add to research, and I'm very proud of you Jami, and thank you for staying with us at the University of Utah during this really difficult time for all of our students. I wonder about any of the stories that you're hearing or collecting as you go about your undergraduate research project. Is there a story that you would like to share with listeners?

Jami Harvey: I haven't quite started the collecting process of stories. What I'm looking forward to is that there are many different situations, very different stories that are here on the reservation. Different from those that we've seen in the media thus far about Navajo Nation. A majority of the people in Arizona don't have running water and such. And we think about the people here in Southeastern Utah, who may be facing the same situation, facing different situations and we have their perspectives on the real help that they've received within this pandemic and at this time, and how they see culture, and how it might connect them even more to their community. We're already being so connected to our families, making sure everybody's safe. We have the opportunity to even be more grounded within our culture, on our land, with our people, and I think that is what I really look forward to and am excited to hear.

That there's a lot of learning, that there's a lot of gratitude, too. There's a lot of thankfulness. There's a bigger aspect of . . . There are people who are, like Heather, who are organizing, or anybody who is donating. We don't have many opportunities to say thank you. Most people are focusing on what they're receiving or the media is focusing on how badly we're affected, but we haven't had the opportunity to voice, to really share our appreciation, share our thankfulness. And I think that's so important. I think that's definitely a theme I'll hopefully get to highlight and be able to hear from these individual stories that I'll get to report.

President Watkins: It's remarkable that you would highlight gratitude in such a difficult situation. I think that says a lot about you, Jami. And I'd also say that the work you're doing will really matter. Effective public health has to be grounded in understanding of culture and cultural competence from health providers. The insights that you gain in your stories will make a difference in more effective public health. So, well done.

Thank you for doing the work you're doing. Heather, Jami, it's been a delight to have you on U Rising podcast today, and a privilege and an honor for me to get to know you both a little bit better and for our listeners to do the same. Listeners, thank you for tuning in, and I hope you'll join us again for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.