9 mins

Protect Native Elders is a group of Native American activists and San Francisco Bay Area techies working to deliver PPE, food, water and other essentials to Native American communities impacted by COVID-19. This rapid-response network is serving vulnerable Indigenous people’s nations all across the United States, Mexico and Canada.

We spoke with Bleu Adams, Dmitri Novomeiski and Marianna Reynov, three of the several co-founders of Protect Native Elders.

Bleu and Marianna had worked together for months, but this was the first time they were meeting in person. They were spending the day working out of the “Blackbird Brunch” in the Navajo Nation. The restaurant, owned and operated by Bleu, was closed temporarily due to COVID-19 related restrictions. This was Marianna’s first time working inside the Navajo Nation.
Dmitri and Marianna had previously worked together in San Francisco and Dmitri joined us on Zoom from somewhere in the Bay Area.
(Portions of this interview have been slightly edited for clarity)

The Interview

DN: It’s magic! Look – I can see Bleu and Marianna working together. In-person for the first time! Most of us work remotely.

BA: We are at my restaurant – it’s called “Blackbird.” Behind me, you can see all the protective equipment we have stored here. Because of COVID-19, I cannot operate the restaurant so I have had to pivot. As a result, we use the restaurant to provide storage for Protect Native Elders.
Today Marianna and l are doing inventory. After that, we will be shipping and delivering PPE and hand sanitizer. At the same time, we will be talking to local business owners to see how we can support them.


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A post shared by Blackbird (@blackbirdbrunch)

Tell us about Protect Native Elders

DN: Protect Native Elders was formally launched in early April 2020.
There was a group of Native American activists like Bleu and others that started rallying together in the Four Corners region. They saw that the threat of COVID was looming. So they started gathering supplies and figuring out how to get these supplies to elders.
Meanwhile, a group of techies and activists out of the San Francisco Bay area were doing something similar.

In short, serendipity connected us through social media and our destiny was sealed.
After that, we started collaborating, especially when the first massive COVID-19 spread happened in the Navajo Nation.
As we worked together more closely, we saw the advantage of having a diversity of people and experience.
On one side, there were the people who have experience in tech and start-ups. On the other hand, the Native American people were actually there in the community and have their own levels of experience.

That synergy allowed us to take off. Our impact grew very quickly.
And then the National Guard came to set up a field hospital. But it turned out they had no supplies except cots and gloves.
We were actually the first group to come in and bring supplies to the field hospital.

Bringing people together

DN: There are a couple of things that are crucial to making this work.
Firstly, we designed Protect Native Elders to be “partner-friendly”. Basically, we are creating a distribution network throughout the country. It’s a network based on mutual aid.
We support tribal communities going north to Canada, south into Mexico and from west to east. It’s an intertribal framework of organisations. Each organisation has their own structure and volunteers. That’s important because they understand the on-the-ground needs better than we ever could.

Secondly, it’s also about data. Good data is crucial and Marianna is our “data queen”.
She, myself and other folks with a tech background are working together to create a data hub.
Native American communities use the hub to tell us what they need. Likewise, our partner networks can look on the hub to see what needs to be sourced and distributed in real-time. In addition, we are also rallying other organisations that want to help these communities.

We could never do all this by ourselves, but together we can. Essentially, the whole thing is really about creating a community of people rising up together.

BA: I think that’s a really important point.
There are more than 574 recognised nations throughout the US and each one has its own bureaucracy, logistics, etc.
So it really makes sense for us to support the organisations that are already on the ground and have been doing this work for years.

MR: Another important thing is that we are doing it together. It takes all of us, all different colours, backgrounds and places to make this happen.
To me, “doing it together” is what Protect Native Elders is about.

Your website reports some very distressing information. What story are these numbers telling?

“40% of Native American homes don’t have access to running water.
As of July 27, 2020 there are 28,987 confirmed cases of COVID-19
 and 1,125 confirmed deaths.”
(Protect Native Elders website)

BA: Well I look at that and ask myself, “Why are the numbers so high? Why are we so disproportionately affected?”

As I look back through history, what I see is an entire people being disconnected from their food system.
We are the size of West Virginia yet we have only 13 grocery stores. Of course, we are going to have underlying health issues here – diabetes, poor nutrition and alcoholism.

And our rates of infection are higher because people, especially unsheltered relatives, must use public spaces for their needs.

In addition, there is a lack of housing all across the Navajo Nation. This means people live in multi-generational households.
You can have up to 14 people in a two or three-bedroom home. We also have the traditional housing – the hogan – which is just one single room.
So how can you shelter?
How can you protect your family members from contracting the virus?

It’s hard, it is really difficult.


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A post shared by Bleu (she/her) (@bleuadams)

And how do you address that?

What came to mind was hand sanitizer. Because of the lack of running water, hand sanitizer would be such a gift.
People are already rationing water as it is. On top of that, they are now being told, “Wash your hands several times a day.”
So hand sanitizer helps address that.

Then we received a very generous donation of facemasks. So we went to work with the Navajo Nation Shopping Centres to give away facemasks. They sponsor an “Elder Day.” People are able to bring empty bottles and get refills of hand sanitizer and get a facemask.
There are so many great programs like this that we were supporting.

But it really does just keep coming back to systemic issues.
You know this is not the last pandemic. We already had the flu pandemic and that wiped most of us out. And before that, pox.
It’s always been a challenge for indigenous people.
To address it you need to ask, “How do we strengthen our community so that we are not always in this position?”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Protect Native Elders has been a first responder for many Indigenous communities.
Although the US government promised $8 billion in COVID-19 relief to help Native people, the “Cares Act” was ineffective in addressing urgent needs.
Protect Native Elders decided to step up and take the lead. Their ability to understand the situation on the ground was critical. Their approach was effective and decisive for countless people. 

Three Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe checkpoint deputies look safe and strong in reflective safety vests and their PPE image from Protect Native Elders Facebook page

Three Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe checkpoint deputies look safe and strong in reflective safety vests and their PPE. Image: Protect Native Elders (Facebook).

You decided to step up and take the lead in providing basic supplies to Native American communities. In many instances you are protecting not just Native elders, you also help protect medical staff and first responders. You are helping to protect the protectors.
Tell us more about why you decided to take on this role.

BA: Anytime we are dealing with the federal government there are layers and layers of bureaucracy. The CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) was a U.S. economic stimulus package in response to COVID-19. It came with a strict protocol, conditions and a timeline.
Most importantly, all the money had to be spent by December 31st (2020) – which is impossible. How could we ever spend that much money on water, power and drilling projects by December 31st? So the CARES Act was not the answer for us.
Honestly, the answer to what we are facing is entrepreneurship and supporting local businesses. That’s what we focus on here.

DN: Another issue is that the federal aid programs do not address the urgent needs of the community right now.
It is ironic that there are federal agencies that are actually reaching out to Protect Native Elders for supplies. The government is not adequately funding these agencies. So either they come to us or they try to crowdsource the supplies.

So we are collaborating with some of those groups right now.
We are sending supplies and donations to tribal entities through them.

BA: This is one of the strengths of Protect Native Elders – we are rapid support.
Many times, and especially when hand-delivering PPE, we are the first point of contact for communities.
We supply them with protective equipment, hand sanitizer and food. We even supply items that you wouldn’t expect. That’s because a lot of the eldercare centers were running low on things they needed to support their clients.
Very often we were the first people to reach out to them. We simply ask “What do you need?” And then we go find it and deliver it to them.

Protect Native Elders logo

Image: Protect Native Elders – Facebook

What is the situation like for Native people at this moment?

BA: Right now (autumn 2020 Ed.) there is a curfew during the week and a lockdown on the weekend in the Navajo Nation.
A lot of small, local businesses are shuttered. I’d say 75% of small businesses aren’t doing business right now.
However large, national, chain food restaurants are allowed to operate. This concerns me. The Navajo Nation is already running at a deficit. The coal plant has been shuttered for a year. That plant was 45% of our economy.
As a result of COVID shutting down small businesses, systemic issues that haven’t been addressed are being amplified.
We think this is part of our work too.

One thing that’s important to know, Indigenous cultures see things in a circular model.

We are taught that in everything that we do we must consider how our actions will affect the 7 generations beyond us. This is the philosophy of most indigenous people.
It is always in our hearts, in our minds.
Compare this to the American model which is linear and extractive.

Unfortunately, this philosophy has put us at a disadvantage with a dominant culture that’s very individualistic and willing to destroy people, land, air, water for profit.
How do you compete with that? How do you compete with that business model?
It’s impossible.

So this is another important point. We are our community – we make sure that we always keep the community at the forefront.

What does support for helping Native American communities to thrive look like beyond the pandemic?

BA: It keeps coming back to the same things.
Entrepreneurship, localising our agriculture and investing in our food systems. We need local food systems. For instance, today everything is shipped in, so everything is packaged food. This creates health disparities.
This is what we need to focus on moving forward. Again, that’s what I think about when I see those numbers we talked about. I think, “How avoidable this could have been!”

So that’s what I do. I think about how we can address these issues.
It’s a major task! But we have to start somewhere.

And we also need allies.
I say this every chance I can get.
We need allies, we need advocacy and we need more channels to speak. We need more people listening to us from our perspective.

Our motto at The Inspirer is “Inspiring people, inspiring people”. After hearing your inspiring story, we’d be interested in knowing who inspires you.

DN: Well, I am inspired by everybody who has been involved with Protect Native Elders!
Especially everyone involved during the initial months. This group, our shared experience, was kind of a spiritual journey for everybody called to do this work. Things were happening in a way where everybody was inspiring everybody.
I can’t really isolate an individual person because every connection would bring this amazing light. I don’t want to go too esoteric here, but there was a lot of magic. There was an opening. It was work that needed to happen and we were just on the trajectory of helping it happen.
It all occurred so naturally and to me, that was the inspiring part.

I’d also like to say that we are an entirely “volunteer-run” organisation. Nobody makes a penny on what we do. Our partners, the people that we work with, we are all volunteers. We all do what we do because we have a calling of the heart.
That too is very inspiring.

Working on the front line

BA: Well, I too am inspired by my entire team.

But if there is one person in particular that inspires me every day, it’s Verlon. Verlon Jose is from the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The Tohono O’odham Nation is an interesting place. It straddles the border between the US and Mexico. They are a nation within two nations. However, they are forgotten by both of their governments.
Some of their areas are very rural.
When I first met Verlon, their supply chain had broken down. They were having so much trouble just accessing food. As a result, they were hunting rabbits to provide food for their communities. Then, the rabbits started contracting a disease.
The situation was critical. So we immediately connected them with organisations that provided food.

Verlon just keeps going. Honestly, he does whatever he can for these communities?
Nobody else was really aware of the situation facing these communities. Nobody was doing anything for them. But Verlon was there. He was providing medical equipment, PPE and support.

That whole community is very close to my heart.
Their sacred sites are being destroyed for the border wall. Everybody, from young kids to elders, is down there protesting and trying to save their community. And seeing Verlon working so hard, every day really keeps me humble.
Watching him puts my own work Ito perspective. Because what I do doesn’t seem as hard or difficult when I see everything that he’s accomplished.

Featured photo credit: Protect Native Elders – Instagram
Other images: Protect Native Elders  on Instagram and Facebook and Youtube “Protect Native Elders – Help Stop Spread COVID-19”

For more about Protect Native Elders

Take action – donate and share their GoFundMe campaign 

Check out their website protectnativeelders.org or their social media pages: @protectnativeleders IG, Protect Native Elders Facebook,  Protect Native Elders Channel YouTube, @EldersNative Twitter

Feature image credit: ProtectNative Elders / Facebook