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The Navajo Nation — a Native American territory that spans Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the United States — recently had a 10-day streak of zero COVID-19 related deaths. The population of over 150,000 people, which had one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in May 2020, has done a complete 180 on the pandemic, and women leaders were central to the effort. 

Barriers to electricity and running water have made it particularly difficult for the Navajo people to curb the virus, but they have received praise for setting an example for the rest of the US. The Navajo Nation strictly enforced the recommended guidelines and is running a successful distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. On Sunday, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez announced more than half the adult population had been vaccinated. 

Dr. Jill Jim, executive director at the Navajo Department of Health, has been at the helm of the Navajo Nation’s pandemic response. 

Jim’s leadership earned her a role on President Joe Biden’s and Vice President Kamala Harris’ Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board last year. She recently reunited with three other women from the advisory board on a panel hosted by the organization WomenLift Health to discuss the importance of applying a gendered and intersectional lens to COVID-19 pandemic response. 

Global Citizen caught up with Jim after the event to hear more about the challenges the Navajo Nation had to overcome during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the perspectives Navajo women bring to leadership.

Global Citizen: What are some of the unique challenges Indigenous Americans have faced during the pandemic? 

Dr. Jill Jim: I know the mortality rates for Navajo Nation, when we did our calculations last fall, were hitting rates that were just above other racial groups. 

There's a large mental health and psychological impact because many deaths have occurred and we will probably need help in trying to grieve and overcome this as a tribal community going forward.

One thing that we do have a problem with is our gatherings, and I think that will be in any culture. You celebrate birthdays, weddings, it's still a challenge ... I've heard this not only [with] COVID but for other diseases across the world, where some different ethnicity groups really have that family knit that’s so strong that sometimes we have a difficult time overcoming that, with the family way of coming together, we still try and emphasize ... that.

How have Navajo women stepped up as leaders to support recovery efforts in the Navajo Nation?

That set of instilled teachings and values in our own culture, I think, has helped us prepare for this. We have to be the strong leaders and be able to calm people. We hear stories about how we’re the ones that will be able to give comfort to our people and to our families, and I think that expectation has been part of our teachings and being able to fulfill that role, even though there's a generational difference ... A lot of our elders are still here, but a lot of them have passed as well. 

We have people that are able to translate some of the ways that we communicated historically, how our grandmother might have talked to us. We have so many town halls [where] people are encouraged by using our language, it brings them familiarity and also comfort. 

Can you talk a little bit about how the Navajo Nation's recovery efforts have been different and effective in stopping the spread of the virus? How do you think women played a role in those efforts?

A lot of our public health emergency orders are very strict still.

Here in Navajo Nation, we have a lot of female professionals. They play a large role every single day, if they're working for a federal agency or the Navajo Nation or a tribally authorized health facility. 

There [are] some males, but I think women often dominate the workforce to some extent. We are our caregivers, but we also are heavily employed now as well. There's a large role in the female response here on Navajo. 

We're not opening quickly as well, like lifting restrictions. We haven't had indoor dining for a while. Our female professionals, we come together and we talk about a lot of these issues on how we can mitigate COVID. 

I feel like that played a role, just understanding the critical and prioritized populations very easily and trying to get to them. 

There's that immediate response to protect our elders and especially our grandmothers and our extended relatives that are females because we also know that they carry on the clans of our first clan. 

What are some of the challenges of sometimes being the only person in the room representing your community and being asked to offer your unique perspective?

Sometimes I get asked to talk about the tribal demographics or people don't have a picture of where you're located or how you're configured or what your environment looks like. There's a lot of education to be done and I think that I'm more than willing to do that. 

When you meet people, they think that you need a passport to get into the reservation or that all tribal communities are the same, but they're not. We're just one of over 500 recognized tribal nations [in the US]. So it's always trying to think back when you're not only talking for the Navajo Nation, but you have to talk about other tribal nations and their female leaders and their women leadership. 

We're always trying to piggyback off of each other when there's one or two female leaders, sometimes when we're trying to advocate for our concerns and issues. But there's still a lot of fight that still needs to go on in tribal communities. And I think this administration has done a good job, but we still have a long way to go. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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