As the Navajo Nation Faces a COVID-19 Crisis, Alvina Begay Finds Strength in Tradition
This Navajo nurse and three-time Olympic Trials qualifier has leaned on running for health and stress management.
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Running has not just served as a profession for Alvina Begay, but lately, as a nurse, a daughter, a sister, and a member of a traditional Navajo family, she’s been reminded that her deeper connection with the sport is also critical to her wellbeing.
Begay, 39, lives and works on Navajo Nation, which is the third-hardest hit area in the United States. As of Monday, 2,373 cases of COVID-19 and 73 deaths have been reported on the reservation, which spans northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. Tribal leaders have mandated 57-hour weekend curfews, ordering residents to stay home from 8 p.m. on Friday until 5 a.m. on Monday.
During a time of stress and worry—for herself and her immediate family, many of whom are on the frontlines in area hospitals—Begay, who competed for Arizona State University and went on to become an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier in 2008 and 2012, has tried to remain physically active. In a recent phone interview with Women’s Running, she explained how running plays a role in Navajo tradition, what other teachings are helping her cope, and why she believes the Navajo people are having difficulties fighting the virus.
Women’s Running: How are you and your family?
Alvina Begay: We’re all healthy and spread out right now. We’ve seen each other from a distance, but we haven’t been able to hug each other—a lot of phone calls and text messaging right now. I currently live in Tsaile, Arizona, and my significant other works here at the college [Diné College] and I was able to get a job at a healthcare facility. We go back to Flagstaff once or twice a month.
My mother works in Kayenta [near Monument Valley] where she is the director of nursing. And my dad is holding down the homestead in Ganado. My mom comes home on the weekend. My dad is home with the three grandkids—my middle brother’s kids—and running the ranch by himself. I guess he’s a babysitter, home-school teacher, too. My brother works with the IT program at the Chinle hospital and then my sister is in Phoenix with her kids. My two younger brothers are in Flagstaff and one works at Safeway.
WR: So, most of your family is on the frontlines of COVID-19 in one way or another?
AB: It’s a stressful time for our family. We are definitely reminding each other to be safe, be smart, and we pray—just constantly reminding each other to not let our guards down. There’s a lot of worry especially when this all started on the Reservation, I think we were all really afraid for my mom. That was all before it got really bad on the reservation. It was hard on all of us. She couldn’t come home for several weeks. It sounded really scary. That’s just our life right now. It’s just really unbelievable.
WR: What about your job?
AB: I’ve been a dietitian for about 15 years now, which is the job that brought me out from Flagstaff to the Reservation. I graduated from nursing school in December. I’ve been doing a lot more of the dietitian work right now. I work with the high-risk population and I’m doing a lot of education—not just nutrition education, but a lot of education to patients and their family members about prevention and being very careful at this time.
WR: When did you start to realize how badly COVID-19 was going through Navajo Nation and how quickly the situation was escalating?
AB: At the beginning of the year, I started reading more about it and following the news pretty closely. We got warnings from our Navajo Nation government about the potential that it could come to the Reservation. One of the last classes I took in nursing school was a public health program. We had talked about pandemics and we even had to watch “Contagion” for one of our class assignments. I felt like I took the news pretty seriously at the beginning. With my mom being the director of nursing, she was already talking about how they were in meetings to prepare. We started getting training at my job for what we needed to do to protect ourselves and our patients.
With the Native American population being high risk because of heart disease and diabetes and kidney disease, we knew that if the virus came to the Reservation it was going to be a difficult situation. Just knowing that, we took precautions seriously early on. It was really frustrating to see and hear that people just weren’t, in my mind, taking it seriously. I had gone to the hospital to get bloodwork done and they were preparing for people to show up with signs and symptoms of the virus. We had heard that the first case showed up at the facility where my mom works—just talking to her over the phone, you could hear the anxiety and emotions. Then we found out that it was in the Chilchinbeto community [near the Four Corners area] and the majority of the people there go to the Kayenta hospital. We could hear the fear in my mom’s voice at times and that scared us as a family.
WR: How are you handling the stress of the situation?
AB: The one thing I’ve really tried to do is keep running. That’s always something I’ve fallen back on when times were tough or something was happening in my life that I couldn’t control, to just be in the moment, be by myself, and think things through. That’s something that I’ve used and it’s helped me. We also have two Australian shepherds and they keep us in the moment. We have to take them out running and long walks. Doing those things has really helped us keep clear-headed. It’s so easy to just keep looking at the news and social media, so just being with our dogs keeps us away from that.
WR: Do you also rely on your Navajo roots?
AB: I come from a Navajo traditional family. We are turning to our traditional herbs and our traditional prayers and songs at this time. We’re burning a lot of sage and juniper. We’re making herbal teas and just trying to stay connected to the earth. We use the herbs and the trees to protect us and keep us safe and strong, especially our immune systems. All of those things are helpful in keeping us okay.
WR: And running is also part of the Navajo tradition.
AB: As Navajos, it is a huge part of our tradition. We have a “Coming of Age” ceremony when young girls go through puberty. It’s four days and during those days, you have female mentors and teachers. You are taught how to work hard and how to take care of your mind, your body, your spirit. You’re taught the lessons you need to lead a fulfilling, good life. You run three times a day to the east and you yell so that the holy people can hear you. The purpose of that running is to teach young women to take care of their bodies, to keep their bodies and immune systems strong and physically prepare for whatever you might go through.
Running has always done that for me—it helps me stay fit and healthy. So, the Navajo culture teaches us to take care of our bodies, to run and stay fit because we don’t know when we’re going to be tested physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And I feel like that time has come right now. That’s what our warriors did before the treaties—our Navajo people were strong and healthy because they had to be physically fit if they had to go into battle at any moment. They had to be prepared for the unexpected. Being physically fit helps in times like this, when we don’t know what’s going to happen.
WR: I know that you had a bit of scare that you’d been exposed to COVID-19 and you felt reassured because of the running you were able to do.
AB: For sure. When you’ve run as long as I have and you’ve put in the miles, pushed your body to crazy levels, doing crazy workouts—with all that training you’ve done you become more in tune with your body. You know your body and that’s how you can gauge changes in your body. I was exposed to the virus and I was lucky to get tested right away. After the test I had to wait about a week for the results. I was scared, but I ran every day and felt fine. I had really good runs, but I was paying attention to my breathing. I was running eight to 12 miles and doing some workouts—and I felt like if I had the virus I wouldn’t have been able to run that far. I was grateful that my body could run that long without any issues. Throughout the day I was taking my temperature, just being super aware of how I felt. I was smelling foods to make sure I could still smell. I was paying attention to the little details. That was reassuring. After being physically active my entire life and I feel like that’s where I’d notice changes. Being an athlete, you can feel the tiniest changes your body. It’s like your own personal test—it’s a saving grace.
WR: As more cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed throughout Navajo Nation, it caught the attention of national media. Do you think it’s been a fair portrayal of what’s going on there?
AB: The Navajo culture has the clan system—everybody is related to each other in one way or another. Navajo are family-oriented. It’s the Navajo Kinship. Part of that system is that if you see somebody, you shake their hand—that’s the formal, polite way to greet somebody. If you don’t shake your hand, it’s considered rude. There’s that part of the clanship and then because of historical traumas, Navajo people help each other out a lot. If a family or somebody is struggling, people will drop food off or stop by with money. We help each other out. Social distance is a tough concept for Navajos because of the clanship. Right now I’m hearing stories about some elders checking on each other. Somebody’s family member is sick, so they’ll visit that family member, but they’re not supposed to right now. There’s that cultural piece and it’s one part the media isn’t covering. They’re focusing a lot on the poverty and that’s only a small part of it.
Also, because of the historical trauma, some people are afraid to go to the hospital because they don’t trust it. There was a time when women were sterilized if they went to the hospital—there’s distrust in the system and the federal government.
We were listening to a podcast the other night with a woman from the Chilchinbeto community who was saying that every Sunday the extended family had dinner together. That’s like 20 people—if there’s one person sick in that group, 20 people will get it.
We’re also seeing a lot of people don’t have adequate housing. There could be 10 people living in a two-bedroom house. If one person is sick, everybody is going to get sick.
It’s a mix of a lot of different things. It’s more complicated.
WR: So what’s the light at the end of the tunnel?
AB: One good thing I’m seeing and what I love about my Navajo people is that despite restrictions they still try to find ways to help each other. People are making masks. We have so many volunteers delivering food boxes. Even though there’s social distancing, they’re still trying to work around it and do what they can. And they’re encouraging people to wear masks to protect the elders. I believe that our Navajo people are survivors. A lot of us are traditionalists and this is really bringing us back to our traditional values, reconnecting with Mother Earth and the teachings. That’s how our ancestors survived.