HUACHUCA CITY — Carpenter Scott Hill was recently tasked with a grim order that he wished he didn’t have to fill — building pine coffins for members of the Navajo Nation, a place where COVID-19 has struck unmercifully.
Hill, a member of the Canelo Cowboy Church, and Larry Lane, the missions pastor of Village Meadows Baptist Church in Sierra Vista, were busy Thursday and Friday loading a trailer with two of the coffins Hill made, as well as food, toys and paper goods for the Navajo.
Lane, who lives in Huachuca City, said his church, as well as Hill’s, and a third house of worship, Sonoita Hills Community Church, have been working with the Navajo people for years, helping them with food, clothing and even chopping wood for some of the reservation’s elderly who have no electricity.
But taking coffins to the reservation because of COVID-19 deaths is a mission Lane and others wish they they didn’t have to carry out.
“The Navajo Nation has been hit very hard,” Lane said Friday morning at his residence. “We’re going to the epicenter, the hot spot for COVID-19.”
The hot spot, according to Lane, is Houck, Arizona, a town in the reservation with just over 1,000 people. Houck is in Apache County, one of the areas in the state hit the hardest by the pandemic. As of Friday, there were 859 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Apache County, which borders New Mexico.
Because there is widespread poverty and no running water in some areas of the reservation, COVID-19 has had an easy time of it.
In a May 13 article in the New York Times, Navajo Indian Wahleah Johns wrote that the reservation has one of the country’s highest rates of infection. Johns, who grew up in Winslow and Black Mesa, Arizona, said, “Hundreds of miles of roads are unpaved, so it can take up to three hours to get a sick person to help. It’s difficult to self-isolate because families live in one-room homes called hogans. Up to 40 percent of Navajo households don’t have running water, making it hard to wash hands. Cellphone service and Wi-Fi are limited, so it’s difficult to keep in touch and to get information about the epidemic.”
The Navajo Nation — whose actual name is the Diné, which means “the people” in Navajo — is the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. with an area of 27,413 miles and over 17 million acres. It stretches from northeastern Arizona into southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico, and has a population of about 357,000 people.
Lane said the load — packed tightly into a trailer hitched to a white van — would be transported straight to the Good News Church in Houck, a 379-mile drive that would take him and other church members most of the day to make. Once they arrive, they’ll be greeted by Pastor Eugene Chee.
There is a curfew in place at the reservation, however, so there won’t be much socializing.
“We arrive at the church, unload the van, and leave,” Lane said.
Hill, who built six coffins — all for the Navajo — said he’ll be taking the other four caskets to another part of the reservation in Cuba, New Mexico, in two weeks.
He explained that under normal circumstances, members of the Navajo Nation are given $2,500 for burials when there’s a death in a family, or clan. But because the Tribal Council and the reservation’s chapter houses — a type of court — have not been meeting, the stipends have not been doled out.
“They’ve been wrapping the dead in blankets,” Hill said. “There is just no help for them.”
A Canelo resident, Hill said each casket took him two days to put together. As he built them, he couldn’t help but feel sad.
“It’s just one way we can help them,” Hill said.
He displayed his cell phone, which was filled with text messages from some members of the reservation who were asking for help and saying the Navajo people had been left behind.
Village Meadows church members Rhonda Gniech and Ed Jensen, both from Hereford and traveling to Houck with Lane and Hill, agreed. Jensen said he too has visited the Navajo Nation several times and is always struck by the people and their positive outlook on life despite their hardships.
“We owe them,” Jensen said.
Lane said he and other church members want people to know about the plight of the Navajo Nation.
“We want people to know that there are other people hurting out there,” Lane said.
Anyone interested in making a donation to the Navajo people is asked to call 520-458-4500.