Youth on the Frontlines of COVID Relief on the Navajo Reservation

Mutual Aid at Rez Refuge on the Navajo Reservation - Spring 2020

Tieron Johnson is a young staff member at Rez Refuge on the Navajo Reservation. He and others at Rez Refuge have been working tirelessly as first responders during COVID-19, distributing food, water and other essential resources to his community. To learn more about how to support their efforts, click here! Maya Carlson of Bioneers spoke with Tieron about his leadership providing mutual aid to people on the Navajo reservation and what it feels like to be a role model for young people in his community during these times. 

TIERON JOHNSON, REZ REFUGE: Hello! My name’s Tieron Johnson, I’m 19 and I’m pretty awesome. I’m calling from Fort Defiance, Arizona. It’s a little community just by Wind Rock, Arizona.

I am a Program Coordinator with Rez Refuge, a youth center for teens and Academic Success Program (ASP) students. We have programming for youth ages 6-18 where we hang out with the kids and do outdoor programs as well as arts and craft. We’re helping kids keep their minds off the bad in the neighborhood, as well as get kids inspired and motivated. I started off in the program when I was in middle school. Rez Refuge kept me off the streets and kept me focused on wanting to be better. I used to be really shy and I couldn’t communicate as well as I do now. My confidence level has risen as I’ve grown up with Rez Refuge. We have an amazing team here and I’m happy to be a part of this organization. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities. As I’ve gained more responsibility and experience with Rez Refuge, my confidence has risen. 

MAYA CARLSON, BIONEERS: I like the connection you make between responsibility and confidence. It’s a meaningful thing to be able to support other people.

TIERON: Out here on the reservation, we don’t have many role models, so it feels good to have some of the kids here say how much they look up to us. They tell us that they miss us when we’re dropping off food and supplies to families in quarantine. I miss running around and hanging out with the kids. 

MAYA: How has COVID changed your work with Rez Refuge?

Mutual Aid at Rez Refuge on the Navajo Reservation in Spring, 2020

TIERON: We weren’t paying much attention to COVID in the beginning, but then it started to hit home, and we started to get serious. Rez Refuge took a week off and then we went to the local high school and St. Mary’s Food Bank, where people were handing out food supplies. They gave us 110 boxes of food with cereal, basically canned goods and non-perishables. We drove around the neighborhood and handed out some to our participants, as well as other people we knew walking around the neighborhood. We got experience distributing food, and learned how we could do it better. After that, we got in contact with Navajo & Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief. They brought a bunch of food from Shamrock Farms and we distributed all our food. It was hectic because we had about 11 or 12 people a day coming through our doors, and we still had to do our desktop jobs. We’re trying to figure out how to recover and rebuild after all of this. 

It’s been challenging for us at Rez Refuge to balance personal life with the distribution we’re doing. We have family who obviously want to travel and go out, even during this COVID-19, and we have to isolate ourselves away from them because we don’t want to get anyone else sick because of the work we’re doing. We’re exposing ourselves every day, and we have to take extra steps to be safe. 

MAYA: How do you get in touch with families who are in need?  

TIERON: We get some recommendations from our participants, some people reach out on Facebook or through our email communityrelief@rezrefuge.org, where people can ask for a care package. A care package contains food for youth, elders, and toddlers. We’ve got diapers, wipes, and hygiene supplies. We have a lot of bottled water here too. We’re trying to figure out how to distribute those because we received donations of 275-gallon tanks and 330-gallon tanks. People are reaching out to connect us with people they know who live in areas where they don’t have connection to the Internet or the outside world. 

MAYA: Is this remoteness why it is important to distribute water and water tanks on the Navajo Reservation? 

TIERON: The water tanks are important to distribute because most natives live in isolated areas where they don’t have running water. Many don’t have utilities and it’s hard to get water. Many people on the reservation are elders stuck in places where there’s no food or supplies, and they have cattle on top of that. They’re hauling water in 55-gallon barrels, which is not enough for daily usage of washing, drinking, feeding animals and caring for crops. It’s just not enough so we’re really glad we got those tanks.

MAYA: Is that part of why you reached out to LifeStraw?

TIERON: Yes. I reached out to LifeStraw on my own because people really need water filters here, and I figured I might as well try. It doesn’t hurt to try, you know? They responded, and it was pretty exciting! We got three community tanks that purify water along with three medium sized and three small purifers. So in total we got nine donated water purifiers from LifeStraw.

MAYA: Why do you think it’s important that young people are making the effort to take on leadership roles to support their community right now?

TIERON: I felt how meaningful it was to be supported by my community. When I was little, I was in my own head. But as I got older, I got to travel and see the world. When I came back here, I saw how beautiful it is here. Many of our youth don’t get the opportunity to leave the rez and come back and feel that feeling of seeing your home again. It reopens your eyes and you’re going to want to make it look beautiful. That’s why after all this is in recovery. We’re hoping to start up our neighborhood watch, as well as a community beautification project and trash clean ups. Alvin Deahozy, another long time Program Manager at Rez Refuge, is starting projects in our garden as well. We’re pushing forward even as the numbers of COVID cases are still rising. Testing is taking a while so we’ve had to get used to coming in in the morning, checking our temperature, logging it every couple of hours, washing our hands, and wearing masks if other people are in the building.

During COVID, Alvin has been spending a lot of time out in the garden and teenagers will come up to the basketball court behind our building to watch him. Everyone stays 6 feet apart as Alvin explains parts of the plants. The teens are really interested. Everyone is bored and on their phones all day so they really want to get out of the house. We’re trying to find a way to get teens and volunteers to garden with us and flip some compost. 

It’s exciting to see how the kids who come here really like gardening and being outdoors. The kids can be kind of naughty when they’re inside, but once you take them outside and start showing them plants, they start seeing how peaceful it is. It’s cool to see how they relax when they’re gardening and watering plants. It’s like meditation. 

MAYA: Do you find that gardening together is another way to share stories with the kids you work with? That’s one of my favorite things about working with land alongside other people.

TIERON: Yes! It’s nice to share stories. I remember we used to do storytelling when we were harvesting corn. When we were like taking off the seeds of the corn and packaging them, we used to tell funny stories and old stories that our parents used to tell us that have been passed-down.

MAYA: I first met you down on the Dine College campus for the Bioneers Intercultural Conversations gathering where you and 40 other youth from across the country came together for an educational exchange to learn more about critical issues facing Indigenous and all peoples. That’s how you initially got connected to Bioneers, yes?

TIERON: Yes. I’ve been twice, and last year I was a facilitator. Intercultural Conversations is amazing. I’ve met a lot of interesting people. The first year, I hung out with a bunch of other natives from different places and we shared stories about how our cultures are different, but yet in a way the same. The experience made me really appreciate being Navajo. I learned a lot too. We heard stories of the North Dakota pipeline and how natives have an old story of the Black Snake running through North Dakota. It turned out to be the DAPL pipeline. It’s crazy! These stories make me believe that there are time travelers. We learned about petroglyphs and meanings behind them. Natives from Fort Defiance, from New Zealand, from California, all had petroglyphs. 

Youth participating the Intercultural Conversations project on the Navajo Reservation in 2019

MAYA: You just said that going to the Bioneers Conference and being with other native youth has made you proud to be Navajo. What do you feel proud of?

TIERON: I feel proud of being Navajo because of how resilient we are. We keep going forward. No matter what is thrown at us, we’re still going to be here. It’s that warrior mentality. You always want to be great, and that’s what we at Rez Refuge are trying to inspire and bring that out in youth.

We want them to step forward into confidence to be better, because we know they can be better. I didn’t know I could be here right now doing this type of work. It’s really eye opening to see how the staff at Rez Refuge helped me and how I’m now helping other youth. I wonder if I’m going to mentor a youth and if that youth will go on to do something great.

MAYA: Before we end, I am wondering if you have any advice you want to share with youth out there. What are you hopeful about in all this?

TIERON: I’m hopeful for a lot of things. More than anything, I’m hoping that everyone is staying safe, washing their hands, making sure they’re taking the right precautions, and that you’re taking care of yourself. If you feel like you’re getting a cold, make sure to get yourself checked. But it’s going to get better.

MAYA: Thanks for that. Is there anything else you want to share? 

TIERON: I got lifesavers and I wish Jim’s would open up. Just kidding… I’m all finished.

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