Women have long been the leaders in Navajo culture. Now they’re steering the fight against Cov …

Women have long been the leaders in Navajo culture. Now they're steering the fight against Covid

Sitting in the passenger seat of her husband’s pickup truck just before dusk, Eugenia Charles-Newton watched a young Navajo girl, her niece, at a traditional kinaaldá ceremony in Shiprock, New Mexico.

The coming-of-age ceremony was unlike any other kinaaldá she’d 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.”

Eugenia Charles-Newton, a Navajo Nation Council delegate, at home in Shiprock with her donkey, Brandy. Photograph: Don J Usner/Searchlight NM

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.…

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