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COVID-19 Relief In The Other San Juan County

Feature image and written by Alastair Bitsóí

Even though home – Naschitti, Navajo Nation, New Mexico – is 183 miles southeast of Bears Ears and not in San Juan County, Utah, I am still of the Bears Ears region. As Indigenous peoples, we do not see state or county jurisdictions as the borders to our homelands. Even when we reside more than 100-miles away, Diné, Ute, Pueblo, Zuni, Hopi and Paiute peoples continuously connect to Bears Ears. Our ancestral homelands are a cultural landscape with more than 100,000 cultural resources that reciprocally connect us to home. For most Utahns, they understand these lands as public lands, but for Indigenous peoples they are ancestral lands – home to our ancestors and our spiritual home in the present.

Photo by Erin Robin Bitsóí

The Indigenous staff at Utah Diné Bikéyah, who come from San Juan County and other regions, often discuss the question of belonging to the Bears Ears landscape among ourselves. Then, that leads to conversations about the need to unravel colonial frameworks that separate us by state and county lines, including the idea of what is public lands, which we define as ancestral lands. These ongoing online and offline conversations eventually led to the creation of our Media and Cultural Sensitivity Training Tool to help explain how Bears Ears is a spiritual home to Indigenous communities beyond San Juan County, Utah. Sometimes the way in which we work is dictated by colonial mindsets that separate us than unite us, particularly in the majority-white land conservation circles. Over the last two years with Utah Diné Bikéyah, I have also learned that most of the land conservation efforts of many peers, foundations, and nonprofits are in part inspired by racist Edward Abbey’s of the world (another conversation…stay tuned for that blog.). Meanwhile, when it comes to state and county jurisdictions, it creates division among Indigenous communities. Which is problematic in nature, and is visible during the current COVID-19 pandemic, where much of the frontline efforts have shifted to focus only on San Juan County, Utah. This type of thinking ignores Indigenous communities hundreds of miles away like mine.

As the communications director for Utah Diné Bikéyah, I fundraise for the nonprofit, a skill that I have developed since I came onboard as a narrative strategist. While I am happy to fundraise for the needs of my Diné and Ute relatives in San Juan County, Utah – who are geographically closer to the Bears Ears landscape – I have started to feel some internal conflict. This conflict centers around how one geography of Indigenous communities gets preference for COVID-19 relief efforts over other Indigenous communities hundreds of miles away. After all, it is my community – Naschitti – who made me who I am: strong, resilient Diné queer person, who is now a COVID-19 survivor. If I identify by county jurisdiction, I am from the other San Juan County, in New Mexico, which sits diagonally from San Juan County, Utah at Four Corners Monument. Like San Juan County, Utah, San Juan County, N.M., suffers from high per capita COVID-19 infection rates. While I am not from Utah and now living part time in the ancestral lands of the Goshute, Ute and Shoshone peoples – or Salt Lake City – I’ve learned that I do not always share the same values of the people around me. I have learned that Utahns seem to only care about their issues, which I find odd and is summed up by state and county jurisdictions. For example, I have encountered the view in San Juan County, Utah how racism and systemic racism is essentially non-existent, or that only those living in San Juan County, Utah are the only ones who can call Bears Ears their ancestral home. Here, having learned them in Dinétah, my values appear alien.

Photo by Erin Robin Bitsóí

How can we really say we serve Indigenous peoples if we only provide and withhold services to Native communities by county jurisdictions? That’s the question I grappled with, until I learned that I can rely on my own values to launch other efforts beyond Utah Diné Bikéyah to help fill the gaps in mutual aid relief. Now that I am medically recovered from COVID-19, I have collaborated with a dear friend and colleague, Davina Smith (Diné), to launch “Protect Diné Mountain Communities from COVID-19.” So far, our efforts have resulted in four deliveries to our communities, and we have generated over $14,000 in COVID-19 relief funds.

Regarding COVID-19 relief efforts with both UDB and Protect Diné Mountain Communities from COVID-19, I want to thank you all for helping serve our Indigenous communities beyond county jurisdictions. I especially want to thank my dear friend, Robbie Bond, of Kids Speaks For Parks, for driving to Naschitti from Nevada to offer relief in the form of cleaning supplies, hand soaps, masks, and hundreds of cases of KOIA Protein Drinks, which primarily went toward those who need access to food in my community. Robbie and his parents, Michelle and Robin, also coordinated efforts of KOIA Protein Drinks to our Pueblo Outreach Coordinator, Ahjani Yepa (Jemez Pueblo), who delivered the protein drinks to her home – Jemez Pueblo – and Zia Pueblo. Even though both Ahjani and I are from communities hundreds of miles away from Bears Ears National Monument, we are still Indigenous, and will forever have connections to the cultural landscape. Beyond our work with UDB, we will continue to advocate for our communities. We, and many others, need to look beyond state and county lines, because that is a colonial way to provide COVID-19 relief across our Indigenous communities. As a result of these efforts, personally and professionally, I now feel more whole and less conflicted about providing COVID-19 relief to both San Juan Counties, or, rather, to the greater Bears Ears region. Ahéhee nitsaago for protecting us from COVID-19 exposure with your donations.

Photo by Erin Robin Bitsóí

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