When the pandemic hit the Navajo Nation this spring, it came fast and furious — spreading “like wildfire,” according to its president Jonathan Nez, and devastating communities long left impoverished by years of systemic racism and neglect.
But the virus and efforts to contain it have now impacted the Navajo on another critical front — voting.
With the 2020 election less than two months away, the community is rallying to register voters and hopes to play a decisive role in races in the 13 counties its members call home across Utah, New Mexico and swing-state Arizona.
“Right now, what’s happening is this assessment of the pandemic — the lack of resources, the lack of initial response and so many things and so many people passing. I mean, it’s just overwhelming,” Jaynie Parrish told ABC News anchor Martha Raddatz.
While COVID-19 hit Navajo Nation later than most states, the community here suffered the highest infection rate per capita in the country by May.
“We’ve had field team members lose family. I’ve lost family,” said Parrish, pausing with tears in her eyes.
Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the country — nearly three times the size of Massachusetts. But its members had higher rates of unemployment and food insecurity before the pandemic — disparities that increased its vulnerability to the coronavirus, along with the close nature of Navajo families.
“Once the virus snuck into the Navajo Nation, you know, it took advantage of our strengths,” said Nez in an interview this week. “And that is, we like to have our families in one house, multi-generations.”
As of Thursday, 530 Navajo have lost their lives. But the nation has made a turnaround in recent weeks, thanks largely to a strict mask policy and curfews laid out by Navajo leadership.
This past Tuesday was the first day with no new cases reported since the first one arrived.
Nez, a Democrat, and his Republican Vice President, Myron Lizer, credit their people’s culture of respect for leadership and data.
“The leadership here is out there shoulder to shoulder with our warriors on the front lines of this pandemic,” said Nez, taking a break between work handing out food and water to neighbors in need.
Nez and Lizer’s bipartisan alliance has caught the attention of the country, particularly after they spoke at their respective parties’ conventions. They credit it with doubling their ability to reach out in their states and in Washington amid historic need across the country.
“It has been effective. You know, he’s got the keys to the White House. I don’t,” said Nez — a reference to Lizer’s appearances at the White House with President Donald Trump. “A lot of times he goes out and attends a lot of these national meetings while I stay home and take care of the domestic issues here, just like I’m doing right outside here with getting food and supplies to our citizens.”
Along with aid, Nez, Lizer and a group of volunteers are handing out information on voting.
With over 300,000 residents, the majority of them in swing-state Arizona, the Navajo have a strong impact.
“Navajo voters have always stepped up,” said Parrish, the campaign director for the Navajo County Democrats, who lives in Window Rock, Arizona. “I see the enthusiasm of our young people and our elders like my mom. … I feel good about this.”
But referring to the pandemic, she added, “If anything, it’s motivating people more than ever.”
That energy has met some impediments, with a new lawsuit accusing Arizona of restricting their ability to vote.
Members of the Nation sued last month to challenge a new state law that requires mail-in ballots to be received by Election Day.
Mail here can take five to six days, often routed through far-away cities before making it to county seats where mailed ballots are tabulated. Many residents don’t have street addresses or nearby mailboxes.
But Nez told ABC News he hopes that the food distribution sites set up by the Navajo Nation can soon act as ballot drop boxes to make it easier for members to vote and do so safely, with minimal contact.
“I am very concerned because there’s a lot of negative talking about how we’re not supposed to be voting early. But I tell everyone that I talk with to vote early, just ask for an early ballot,” said Joanna Peshlakai, a field organizer for the Navajo County Democrats.
Some Navajo members have been motivated this cycle by not only the lack of federal support for Indian tribes and the pandemic’s acute devastation here, but also by the racial reckoning across America.
“My mom and dad always would say, ‘Well, why do you think we were left out of those history books? It’s not a pretty history. It’s a horrible history,” said Jaynie, but, “They instilled in me that we have a 10,000-year history plus as Indigenous peoples, so four to five hundred years is just a small stint in that. And even now, these last six months is a small stint in that. … So we’re going to be here — resilient.”