Nomadica Donates Masks to the Navajo Nation

From January 5-Januay 11, Nomadica embarked on a mission with our partner MakerForce to donate face masks to families and elders in need on the Navajo nation.

MakerForce is an emergency response, pop-up supply chain experiment. After making and donating 65,000 face shields last spring and summer, MakerForce set their sights on a new mission: Attempting a rapid-response donation drive to support isolated Navajo elders facing extreme winter conditions and the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. The trip would be called the Equip the Elders project.

MakerForce, became aware of the needs of the Navajo nation thanks to some friends at AISES Puget Sound Chapter. Equip the Elders was an opportunity to test out tools and techniques for promoting and operating a donation drive on a shoestring budget, with minimal lead time.

There was a huge variety of goods that Navajo nation requested, including:

  • tents
  • sleeping bags
  • hatchets (some of them use wood to keep their home warm)
  • camp stoves
  • diapers
  • wipes
  • hand sanitizer
  • flashlights
  • warm clothing
  • boots
  • blankets
  • face masks

As MakerForce set off, the question that was on everyone’s minds was whether they could have a meaningful impact with these constraints. Could they find a strategy and toolkit that might be replicated by anyone, anywhere, facing a supply chain disruption?

The Journey

We wanted to get as early a start as we could to make it over the pass and get as far down the road before nightfall as possible. The weather forecast was favorable, but winter weather in the mountains can change quickly. We made it to Mountain Home, ID the first night.

By Day 2, our timing was a touch more critical, as we were rendezvousing with Thayer Low in Moab. Thayer is a Land Rover aficionado out of Colorado, and an all-around awesome person. She’s competed in the Rebelle Rally, and is essentially Nomadica’s counterpart in Denver.

Thayer helped organized the collection of some donations around Colorado, and loaded up her rig to bring the supplies out to the reservation.

The further south we moved through Utah, the more snow accumulation we started to see along the road. It turned the desert into a magical landscape.

After getting caught up in conversation and missing our turn onto the highway, I used the GPS to turn around. But we quickly realized that rather than sending us back to the highway, it was sending us down a dirt road "shortcut," triangulating us back to the highway I missed. While it was a shorter distance, it wasn’t much faster. But I relished the opportunity for a break from the freeway.

We got into Moab just past sunset. We were the only ones on the road, and the quiet and serenity of the snow was a beautiful welcome into Moab.

The next morning, we hit the road and eat up as many miles as we can. It's only a 5 hour drive, but we have to make it to Flagstaff by 4pm to rendezvous with our MakerForce contact, who facilitated the distribution of the donated goods.

After blasting across Southern Utah and Northern Arizona at 80mph (it's the speed limit there) for 5 hours a few things really struck me. You could explore trails here for months, and never see everything there was to see. It was below freezing out, but we were blasting the AC to stay comfortable, as the elevation gain and intensity of the sun through the glass was so great.

The Mask Drop-Off

In Flagstaff we met Klee Benally, an Indigenous anarchist, musician, filmmaker, artist, traditional dancer & activist. Klee is with the Táala Hooghan organization, which was heading the effort to distribute supplies around the community.

We transferred the supplies, and Klee showed us around their facility and explained a bit about what they do. Their mission has shifted over time to match community needs, but Táala Hooghan is an advocacy and support organization for the local Native American community.

Klee explained that sometimes the organization focuses on education and training and empowerment, while other times the focus is on helping with basic needs, including donations. Because of the physical size of Navajo Nation and the limited mobility of some of its people, volunteers who distribute the supplies is also a big part of it.

Year-round, the Navajo nation faces challenges to receiving adequate health care, medical supplies, and other resources promised by the federal government as part of the treaty requirements. The added strain of COVID-19 made the situation for some on the reservation much worse, as the Navajo nation is one of the hardest-hit areas by coronavirus.

Klee's organization is mobilized year-round to do what they can to offer community-led support to families and elders in need, including food, medical supplies, clothing, and more.

The challenges the Navajo nation faces are complex and multi-pronged. There's no easy solution, and these challenges are exacerbated by the physical size of the reservation, it's remoteness in a harsh environment, and the distribution of the population.

Many of the homes were far off the highway, down dirt roads and without any services — no power and no water. Some of the elders' only means of heat for warmth or cooking were wood stoves. The nearest town was easily 30 miles away, and consisted of a gas station, a small grocery store, and if you were lucky, a laundromat.

At first, I didn't understand why there were laundromats out in the middle of nowhere. I learned it was because there were many people who couldn’t afford washers and dryers, or didn’t have the services to run them.

We drove about 180 miles across the reservation. There were very few towns, and very little in the way of any opportunity for industry or commerce. It was clear why the situation for some there is so dire.

It was a stark reminder that the development of the physical world is social engineering.

The Impact of Social Engineering in Indian Country

The idea of social engineering is that someone can create a desired outcome through social constructs. This belief can influence culture and attitudes and behavior in large groups of people — for better or for worse.

Social engineering can be achieved through laws and policies, like the immensely harmful “War on Drugs”. But it can also be achieved through positive activist-led campaigns, like the one to increase voter turnout in marginalized communities.

But an often-overlooked tool of social engineering is physical environment. Placed in the right — or rather the wrong — physical environment, one’s ability to self-determine can be completely removed.

Local zoning codes determine what’s legally allowed to be built in any given place. These codes can be very specific, and can completely remove one’s ability to conceive of new forms of housing.

For example, single family homes are very much written into our laws. There are many places where it’s literally illegal to build anything else — the form and layout of the home are all predetermined. A single-family house may be what lots of people want, but not what everyone wants and needs.

Or take it in the other direction. Imagine that in your county, it was only legal to build or own studio apartments. While it’s not impossible to have a family in that scenario, it’s certainly difficult.

Your environment shapes you. The reservations in which the Native Americans have been displaced is effectively a desert island, which was the intentional outcome of many long-standing federal laws and policies. A common response from many non-Native Americans is to “just move”. But such a response ignores the challenges for Native folks to move to wealthier cities — both financially, and what it means to abandon meaningful social and cultural connections to their land and people.

Coming from a place of relative privilege, delivering supplies to elders in need was the least we could do. Nomadica is committed to continuing the work with MakerForce and AISES to keep the Equip the Elders program going. Given the opportunity, we'd be honored to continue to participate in any way that we can in the future.

The End Result

MakerForce was able to spin up donation drives in 3 cities, with 10 retail partners and 20 volunteers, in just 6 weeks.

Nearly 2 tons of equipment and supplies were collected, as well as enough cash contributions to cover all costs associated with the project. That includes the fuel needed to deliver the donations from Portland, Denver, and Salt Lake City to Flagstaff, AZ — over 5000 miles!

We're grateful to the MakerForce team - Ian Lyman, Shashi Jain and Don Hanson, for making this project happen and giving us the opportunity to help.

Big thanks to all the volunteers and partners that donated their time, effort and connections, including Joshua Ashcroft, Zach Mayfield, Thayer S Low, Cam Knighton, Harker Outdoors, Lolo Overland, Wanderlust Overland, Motorsports Tire & Wheel, Mach1 Motorsports, BrainWave Computers, Equipt Expedition Outfitters, Hinckley Overlanding, and AISES Puget Sound Chapter.

While the supply donation drive is closed, you can still help support the Equip the Elders mission with financial contributions. Learn more about this mission and how to help here >