On the Navajo Nation, the coronavirus leaves children motherless, families lost and traditions in peril – but Diné women fight on

Eugenia Charles-Newton, a Navajo Nation Council delegate, at home in Shiprock with her donkey, Brandy. (Photo: Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico)

This story was reported by Searchlight New Mexico, a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated toinvestigative reporting in New Mexico, and shared with USA TODAY.

SHIPROCK, N.M. — Sitting in the passenger seat of her husband’s pickup truck just before dusk, Eugenia Charles-Newton watched a young Navajo girl, her niece, during a traditional kinaaldá ceremony in Shiprock. 

The coming-of-age ceremony was unlike any other kinaaldá she’d ever seen. Scores of family members were missing and there was only a small cake, just enough to feed the immediate family. That morning, the girl’s female relatives hadn’t gathered to sing and tell stories as they mixed the cake batter. When the girl ran toward the east before the sun rose, she didn’t have throngs of relatives running behind her to fill the dawn air with happy screams and shouts, celebrating her transition into womanhood. Only the young woman’s brothers ran after her.

It’s hard “for a girl to have a ceremony like that and not have all the family there,” Charles-Newton said. She tried to comfort her niece, a relation by clan. “Your mom could have just said, ‘No, we’re not going to have it,’” she pointed out. “But instead, she made it happen.”

Women have long been front and center when it comes to making things happen on the Navajo Nation. But never has that role been so apparent — or so perilous — as during the pandemic. Ever since the coronavirus arrived on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, women in this matriarchal society have been putting themselves at risk, taking on ever more responsibilities, culturally and in everyday life. 

“The sacred side of women has changed with COVID,” said Charles-Newton, 43, one of three female delegates on the Navajo Nation Council. Girls used to learn traditions through celebrations, face-to-face talks with elders and communal gatherings. But the pandemic has squelched those opportunities. “It’s taking away a part of the culture.”

By every measure — from economics and education to health — COVID-19 disproportionately harms women and girls “simply by virtue of their sex,” the United Nations has concluded. Women are more exposed to the virus because they’re more likely to be frontline workers, such as nurses and health care staff. They hold more than 77 percent of jobs in U.S. hospitals, health care facilities and nursing homes, U.S. labor statistics show. They hold essential jobs, albeit low-paying ones, in groceries and retail stores.

On the Navajo Nation, women are even more vulnerable to the virus, as a result of poor health care, poverty, trauma and high rates of illnesses like diabetes.

Navajo women not only hold high-exposure jobs