COVID complicates college prep for Native students

It’s a crisp late afternoon in Northern New Mexico, the kind of day that invites you to drive with your windows down or chop firewood in preparation for winter.If this were a normal year, Marisa Gutierrez might not register the seasonal change. The 18 year old is usually beyond busy. But this is 2020, and the high school student body president, cheerleader, community organizer, and aspiring valedictorian is feeling cooped up.And pondering lost opportunities. This story was written by New Mexico In Depth and is republished with permission under a Creative Commons license.Earlier this year the pandemic killed a conference she had hoped to attend at Emory University in Atlanta for Native American students across the country.The teenager, who is a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, one of New Mexico’s 23 Native American tribes, yearned to visit an out-of-state college campus.“I have been on college campuses before but nothing outside of New Mexico,” she said.  She felt for her peers, too, knowing the missed opportunity it likely represented for many.“I’ve had the advantage and opportunities to see a bunch of places, but a lot of people, specifically Natives, aren’t usually accustomed to looking outside of their Pueblo or outside of their tribe,” she said.

A massive hemp empire is accused of growing illegal marijuana and sowing violence on the Navajo reservation

SHIPROCK, N.M. — In the fertile northeast corner of the Navajo Nation, fields that only months ago were traditional open-air corn farms are now stuffed with hundreds of industrial-sized greenhouses, each glowing with artificial lights and brimming with emerald cannabis plants. Security cameras ring the perimeters and hired guards in flak jackets patrol the public roads alongside the farms.

Every weekday throughout the summer, a group of local kids woke at sunrise and arrived at the farm by 7:30, ready for a 10-hour shift of hard labor under the high desert sun. Many were teenagers, 13- and 14-year-olds lured by offers of quick cash. A few were as young as 10. Joining them were scores of foreign workers — an estimated 1,000 people, many of them Chinese immigrants brought to New Mexico from Los Angeles, according to Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco. 

Searchlight New Mexico reported and originally published this story, and it is republished with permission.

Groups condemn forced hysterectomies in a Georgia detention facility

Nicole Martin, a sex education developer and co-founder of the grassroots reproductive rights organization Indigenous Women Rising (IWR), called forced hysterectomies reported by a whistleblower in a migrant detention facility in Georgia a crime against humanity. Martin, of Laguna Pueblo and Diné (Navajo Nation), likened the forced hysterectomies as “directly linked to genocide and colonization and white supremacy.” She said the forced hysterectomies make it impossible for migrant people to reproduce and “bring in more generations.”

“Their whole sense of being is stripped away from them. I can’t imagine how the people detained right now, how they’re coping or functioning or making it day by day. My heart really hurts for them. I can’t believe this is the world we’re living in,” Martin told NM Political Report.

Wired for success: How tiny Navajo Technical University took big steps to keep students connected

The college experience has been reduced to the size of a computer monitor on many college campuses this fall. In an effort to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, more than 1,000 colleges and universities are fully or heavily relying on virtual learning, including schools on the Navajo Nation – where internet access is notoriously scarce. 

How can online learning succeed in a place where students aren’t wired? For the answer, Searchlight turned to Colleen Bowman, the provost at Navajo Technical University, a small school that’s taken major steps to keep students connected. Based in Crownpoint, on the plains northeast of Gallup, NTU was founded in 1979 as the Navajo Skill Center and has since expanded to four satellite campuses. This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

Tribes in NM under intense pressure to complete census count by new deadline

With three weeks to go before the US Census is scheduled to end, 19 percent of Navajo people have responded to the U.S. Census, a much lower rate than for New Mexico and the U.S. overall, and lags behind all other tribes located within the state other than Jicarilla Apache.The once-a-decade head count of the U.S. population helps determine federal funding for healthcare, housing, roads, and a range of other important services and robust responses by tribal members ensure that their communities receive an equitable share of federal resources. 

This story was first published by New Mexico In Depth and is republished here with permission. But the census deadline looms ominously following the Trump administration’s decision in early August to abruptly move it from the end of October to September 30. Earlier this month the Navajo Nation and the Gila River Indian Community joined a lawsuit filed last month by several nonprofits, including the National Urban League and the League of Women Voters, as well as cities and counties in a number of states, to keep the census deadline at the end of October. 

There is no guarantee the court fight will end in an extended deadline, however. Over the past month, the Navajo Nation, which is one of the largest tribes in the U.S. and dwarfs other tribes in New Mexico by size, has nudged upward the number of people who have responded to the census, with responses rising from 10 percent in late July to 19 percent  this week. But that’s significantly lower than its 53.6 percent goal, presented on the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department website.

Reproductive health care poll finds support among Native Americans in state

A poll taken earlier this year showed that 81 percent of Native Americans around the state believe that women deserve to make their own decisions about reproductive health care without government interference. Two nonprofit organizations, Southwest Women’s Law Center and Forward Together, commissioned the poll last spring and the poll results will be released later this fall. Latino Decisions conducted the poll. New Mexico Political Report obtained an unreleased poll summary. Both Forward Together and Southwest Women’s Law Center said giving Native Americans the opportunity to voice their opinions on reproductive health care is important because some state legislators say that Indigenous people are against abortion.

BIA: Navajo members can ‘work around’ connectivity issues to participate in online forum on oil and gas development

Representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) told participants of a virtual meeting Wednesday that they can “work around” connectivity issues to participate in information sessions about proposed amendments to the BLM’s Resource Management Plan for the Farmington field office. 

The comments came after Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso called for the BLM to “immediately and indefinitely suspend” the amendment process, in a letter that was read aloud by Mario Atencio during the online meeting. Tso represents the northwest New Mexico Navajo Chapters Baca/Prewitt, Casamero Lake, Counselor, Littlewater, Ojo Encino, Pueblo Pintado, Torreon and Whitehorse Lake. “The Navajo Nation is still in the midst of an extreme public health emergency caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Tso’s letter stated, adding that for a period of time, the Navajo Nation was experiencing an infection rate that was “among the highest in the world per capita.”

“The expectation for the Navajo Nation to engage in ‘meaningful consultation’ regarding the amendment of a resource management plan while the Navajo Nation has been singularly focused on fighting the SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic is extremely burdensome to the Navajo Nation,” the letter stated. 

RELATED: Planting hope amid a plague

The BLM’s draft Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) was initially released in late February about a week before New Mexico recorded its first cases of COVID-19. The 400-plus page draft amendment outlines a preferred alternative that would increase oil and gas activity in the Greater Chaco region. 

Tribal governments, environmental groups and members of the state’s Congressional delegation all subsequently called for the U.S. Department of the Interior to extend or halt the process until after the pandemic. 

RELATED: BLM will move forward on Greater Chaco drilling proposal while communities grapple with COVID-19 surge

BLM decided in early May to extend the deadline for submitting public comments by 120 days.That period ends September 25. But all of the public outreach and information sessions have since been conducted online. 

Sixty percent of Navajo Nation residents currently lack access to broadband, according to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Navajo Nation president expresses concern over county jail conditions

While New Mexico grapples with a delayed roll-out of reopening businesses and cancelled public events, some detention centers are grappling with increasing numbers of COVID-19. 

A privately run prison in Otero County, which houses both state and federal detainees, has seen a dramatic increase in cases of the disease. 

But now a county jail in northern New Mexico with hundreds of reported cases since March has caught the attention of at least one tribal leader. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sent a letter to San Juan County leaders last week calling for an investigation into how the county jail is run and what is being done to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A portion of the Navajo Nation is in San Juan County and, like the county jail, has seen a high number of positive cases. In his letter, Nez cited a phone call from someone whose relative is in the San Juan County Adult Detention Center (SJCADC). The caller, Nez wrote, said the jail is lacking adequate ventilation, no separation of infected inmates, no laundry service and little to no sanitation efforts by jail officials. 

“How is SJCADC providing for the respect and dignity of the Detainees with a safe and secure environment that is maintained for operational readiness?” Nez asked in the letter. 

He went on to say that he would like to see county officials look into the conditions at the jail. 

“An investigation into the SJCADC operations and more specifically during these times of unprecedented crisis is requested, along with remedies for accountability and responsibility to do the right thing,” he wrote. 

The Navajo Nation did not respond to interview requests. In response, Chairman of the San Juan County Commission Jack Fortner wrote a letter disputing the allegation that inmates are subjected to sub-par conditions. 

Fortner wrote that the jail accepted an offer from the New Mexico Department of Health to provide guidance from Infectious Disease Bureau Medical Director Dr. Aja Sanzone.

In Gallup, surrounded by the Navajo Nation, a pandemic crosses paths with homelessness, hate and healers

GALLUP, N.M. — At the end of the Howard Johnson Hotel’s orange and white hallway, Dr. Caleb Lauber paused by a mirror as if he were lost. The mirror was an invention of the crafty security guards who’d leaned it against a chair, allowing them to quickly see around the corner in case any guests, all COVID-19 positive, should leave their rooms. Lauber worked 60, sometimes 80-hour weeks, caring for the homeless that Gallup had arranged to shelter at local hotels. He’d seen 500 of these patients in the past month. And now his memory was failing. “What’s the room number?” he asked his nursing assistant for the second time as they rounded the corner.  

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished here with permission.

Planting hope amid a plague

SHIPROCK, N.M. — Four miles down Farm Road, just off U.S. Route 491 in northern Navajo, a group of young Diné used what was left of daylight in early May to plant onions and potatoes on Yellow Wash Farm. As the novel coronavirus stretched its way through Navajoland, leaving a trail of heartbreak and uncertainty, the four Navajo men, a mixture of family and friends from Shiprock, picked up their seeds and broke the earth with their shovels. This story first appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. By month’s end, the Navajo Nation would have the highest per-capita infection rate in the country, surpassing even New York state. The outbreak cut a swath across the vast reservation, from outposts in Arizona to the mesas and high desert in northwest New Mexico, where Shiprock, or Naatʼáanii Nééz — the largest Navajo community — became a hotspot seemingly overnight.