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  • Writer's pictureThe Beacon Today

The Navajo people handcrafted jewelry for centuries. COVID-19 made it a means of survival.

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

The selling of handmade jewelry and raku pottery goes back centuries; in many cases, the Navajo individuals who continue this pastime use the same roadside stands as those who came before them (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

An older woman gently cups a collection of dainty wooden beads in the palms of her hands, her eyes bright and fingers twitching with anticipation. As her gaze glazes over the seemingly insignificant cedar pieces, a hazy memory creeps to the forefront of her mind: a young Navajo girl, adorned in the traditional garb of her people, standing on display for all to see. She spins where she stands, a smile spreading across her youthful face while layers of her family’s handcrafted jewelry clink against her small neck. Her mother, a brisk woman fueled with drive and motivation, scurries about their roadside stand selling her wares to passing travelers. Beads of sweat glisten on the middle-aged woman’s brow, reflecting the unrelenting heat of the Arizona sun, the day’s exhausting agenda and the unbearable pressure of trying to provide for her family.

As quick as it came, the memory fades, its wispy presence dissipating into the depths of her subconscious as though it’d never even existed. Aware of her present surroundings once more, Bertha Secody gives a firm shake of her head and refocuses her attention back to the task at hand. It wouldn’t do her well to dwell on the way things used to be. The COVID-19 pandemic had made sure of that.

Now 58, Secody is one of the many Navajo individuals who’ve experienced the financial devastation the pandemic has left in its wake. With a father of heightened vulnerability to COVID-19 and three young grandchildren to look after, Secody and her daughter Connie Rose John, 29, have since turned traditional Navajo beadwork into their family’s primary source of income.

“It was kind of hard for us, for our kids,” Secody said. “We used to travel a lot. But when COVID hit, it slowed down every business that we have.”

With the spread of the virus came the shutdown of small businesses all across the nation. For many Americans, this predicament conjures images of foreclosed buildings and empty stores. For the Navajo, however, it is embodied by empty wooden stalls on the side of the road, deserted and long-forgotten by the tourists that once occupied them (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

With nearly 300,000 established members and approximately 173,000 individuals living on the reservation, the various communities of the Navajo Nation continue to experience little reprieve in the pandemic’s aftermath. In addition to the virus’s pattern of targeting Navajo elders and other high-risk individuals, the reservation’s job market has suffered greatly since the start of the pandemic. Navajo counties in Arizona alone suffered a sharp increase in unemployment rates, surging from 7.2% in April of 2019 to 15.5% exactly a year later.

Selling traditional-style jewelry to tourists is a common business strategy among the Navajo people and often requires sellers to travel throughout the reservation extensively in order to better market their wares. Given that the Navajo Department of Health’s official stay-at-home-order mandated that all reservation residents not engaged in essential activities self-quarantine until further notice, many families lost more than just a major source of income- their businesses were shut down completely. Secody and John are intimately aware of how such regulations impacted the Navajo people as a whole.

“When [COVID-19] happened, it put a lot of fear in our hearts,” John said. “You hear about things through social media that happen in other countries but you never think ‘Oh, it’s going to happen here.’”

Before the pandemic hit, Secody would take John and her children, their beading materials and the family’s completed jewelry pieces to the local gas stations in Tuba City, AZ. There, they would stand by the main entrance and hawk their wares to bystanders and tourists in the hopes of making a decent profit. Despite the pandemic taking a major toll on the Navajo community’s ability to sell jewelry to outsiders, the family’s small business had already been on hold before COVID-19 even became an issue.

Since their family business was run solely by her mother and herself, John eventually submitted to the reality that the competition within this specific market between her and her Navajo community was too great of a burden for her small family to bear. They simply didn’t have the time or resources needed to keep themselves in the jewelry-making game.

To John's own surprise, it was the aftermath of the pandemic that encouraged her and her mother to start beading again. With long days and nights spent cooped up inside their home and financial insecurity hanging over their heads, the mother-daughter team banded together once more to try and make ends meet.

The items sold by Navajo individuals can vary greatly, both in design and concept. Some artists choose to focus on more popular items, like bracelets and necklaces. Others favor distinctly traditional pieces, such as raku-style pottery, dreamcatchers, and tomahawks (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

Secody and John are not the only individuals on the reservation who have used

jewelry-making as their way to get by. Betty Tsosie, 78, has participated in the traditional Navajo practice for as long as she can remember, and recalls the ways she and the rest of the Navajo community sold their handmade products before the pandemic forced everyone indoors.

“We used to sell on the road,” Tsosie said. “We used to make stands. Now I don’t do that anymore.”

Due to her age and the extensive preexisting health problems she’d been facing before COVID-19 hit, Tsosie is unable to market her jewelry on the roadside with the other Navajo sellers. Instead, she opted for selling her creations through friends and third party sellers and only recently started allowing clients to physically entire her home.

While Navajo sellers like Tsosie and Secody have made individual attempts to combat the pandemic’s financial devastation, Navajo Nation authorities have sought to do their part as well. In early July of 2020, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez approved the tribe’s first expenditures of Arizona’s coronavirus relief bill, which was originally approved by the state on Mar. 27, 2020. Consisting of approximately $714 million dollars, a partial percentage of the $8 billion originally promised to the Navajo Nation by the U.S. federal government, this bill was enacted by Nez with the goal to ensure that all Navajo residents would be able to provide for themselves over the course of the pandemic. According to John, however, this hope never came to full fruition.

“A lot of people missed out,” John said. “Some of them didn’t get paid [at all]. Either they hit the deadline or the census numbers that are given out from our tribe didn’t go through with their applications.”

While some Navajo families found ways around this hurdle, like Secody and John with their jewelry-making business, others were forced to rely solely on the generosity of others. Namely, the Navajo Nation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund.

Established by the Navajo Nation’s Health Command Center, this fund serves as the tribe’s “only official COVID-19 fundraising and donation effort.” With it, both Navajo and outside sources can give monetary donations to the reservation’s occupants, which are then used to aid residents with any financial and medical needs resulting from COVID-19.

John watches her mother arrange beaded bracelets on a small board. Due to the board’s small size, Secody is often able to bring finished pieces with her when she goes into town or runs errands, in the event she can make a quick sale to a potential customer. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

In addition to the federal-based fund, many groups and organizations not associated with the Navajo Nation’s government came together at the height of the pandemic to raise funds on their own. The NDN Collective is an individual group set on “building the collective power of Indigenous Peoples, communities, and Nations.” Aware of the condition many of their Navajo brothers and sisters are in as a result of the pandemic, they’ve rallied together to encourage others to contribute to COVID-19 relief for Navajo communities. Using their hashtag “Donation4NavajoNationChallenge,” this organization was determined to fundraise at least $227,000 by the end of their allotted time period. By the time the challenge concluded on May 20, 2020, the NDN Collective reached their goal. This group continues to spread awareness of COVID-19’s impact on their people and encourages individuals to donate to their “COVID-19 Response Project.”

Despite each of these efforts to provide aid to struggling residents, one fact still remains: People in the Navajo Nation have had to go without. Some have had to go without food, some without reliable compensation and still others without the confidence that they’ll make it to tomorrow.

When John heads out to sell jewelry, she often brings a large variety of pieces. In the image shown, she holds up different necklaces and explains in great detail what they are made of and how their materials reflect the Navajo culture and beliefs. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

This uncertainty, which has compromised every aspect of normal life, pushed many individuals, like Secody, John and Tsosie, to take matters into their own hands and attempt to provide their families with what outside sources could not: recurring income. Navajo crafted beads and bracelets may not equate to a stimulus payment or a donation, but if successful, they ensure that the families on the reservation will make it another day. And for some, such assurances are all they need to keep trying.

by Brenna Brown

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