No part of America has been left unscathed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Navajo Nation has been disproportionately impacted by both the virus and the U.S. government’s dismal response to the crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Indigenous people are nearly three times as likely to die of COVID than white Americans, and also at higher risk of developing serious complications from the virus; over the summer, the tribe also had a higher per-capita infection rate than any state. “I personally know all these families, and I just know that we need to create some hope,” said Amy Denet Deal (Yeung), a Diné woman and the founder of sustainable upcycling brand Orenda Tribe. “We need to create some excitement.”
This weekend, Yeung is pairing with singer-songwriter Jewel and nonprofit organization Wonders Around the World to lead a Valentine’s Day Livestream Fundraiser. The event will feature a set from Jewel, along with performances and talks from skateboarding pro Tony Hawk and Indigenous artists like Naiomi Glasses and Tia Wood. Yeung and Jewel hope to raise enough money to build a new skate park and garden in the Two Grey Hills chapter of the Navajo Nation, a community currently without any outdoor sports facilities.
The Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles across Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. As of today, the reservation — home to approximately 173,000 people — has seen over 1,000 deaths and over 28,000 cases of COVID-19. There are several socioeconomic factors leading to these high numbers: for one thing, compared to 10.5% of all Americans, 38% of Diné (Navajo) people live below the poverty line. About a third don’t have running water, which also makes it harder to comply with CDC guidelines, and without reliable WiFi, many are left without regular access to crucial news and updated information. Plus, according to Yeung, many Diné people live in intergenerational homes, which contributes to the spread of the virus.
“These are real problems right now that kept us from being able to react as quickly as the rest of the U.S., and also just getting very, very slow speed with any help from government when the whole thing went down,” Yeung told Refinery29. “So we’ve been hit incredibly hard. We continue to be hit incredibly hard.”
The Navajo Nation requested a major disaster declaration in December, which President Joe Biden just approved on Wednesday. Under the declaration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide the Navajo Nation with much-delayed resources and funds for supplies, vaccine distribution, and medical staff. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called Biden’s move “a great step forward,” and also stated that he hopes to administer at least 100,000 doses of the vaccine by the end of the month. “Our health care workers continue to administer the vaccines on a daily basis,” Nez said. “We are very thankful to all of the health care workers and many others who are working around the clock to help our people and to save lives.”
Yeung is just one of many people working overtime to help her community. In 2015, she founded Orenda Tribe with the goal of uplifting Indigenous artisans, inspiring future generations of Diné people, and sharing her own handmade work with the world. But as COVID-19 devastated the Navajo Nation, her organization’s aim became even more specific, and Yeung devoted the past year to providing vulnerable relatives with PPE, hand sanitizer, masks, firewood, and nonperishable food items. This was when Jewel, a longtime fan of Yeung’s, first got involved. “I was a fan of Amy’s design work through Instagram,” Jewel told Refinery29. “And when I started seeing the work she was doing for critical aid, me and my friend Christopher decided to join forces.”
Jewel teamed up with Yeung and Orenda Tribe for two benefit concerts last year, but this one is a little different. After raising the money, Yeung and Jewel will work with local leaders and volunteers to design and build the skate park. They both stressed the importance of involving the Diné community — especially kids and teenagers — in the park’s creation.
“I’ve had a youth foundation for 18 years, and one thing we’ve really learned, and as someone who personally was on the receiving end of charity when I was younger, is sort of the paradoxical effect of when you’re given something, you need it and you’re grateful, but you also feel kind of bad,” Jewel explained. “The way we’ve learned and inspiring children to remedy that is by giving the kids skill sets, empowering them. It’s not just giving something to somebody, it’s involving them.”
Besides, Jewel added, the point isn’t just to build a skate park. “The point is to make this an act of creation,” she said. “An act of collaboration, of empowerment.”
The benefit will be livestreamed on Sunday, February 14 at 3pm EST. Watch on Jewel’s YouTube channel.