So many stories of loss from all over the country.
Marisa Iati – May 9, 2020 – Washington Post
“An administrative assistant for the Navajo Nation’s Dennehotso chapter, Valentina Blackhorse dreamed of someday leading the entire tribe.
Blackhorse, 28, pored over books about her culture, choosing the issues she cared most about. Among them: the elderly, protecting tribal land and opposing the installation of pipelines. One day, she told her family, she would run for a Navajo Nation Council delegate position, or even for president.
“People said that she was helpful and she knew a lot, and she was willing to learn new things through her job or through her Navajo culture,” said her older sister, Victoria Blackhorse. “And we’re going to miss that from her.”
Valentina died of covid-19 on April 23, a day after she learned that she had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. She left behind her boyfriend, Robby Jones, and their 1-year-old daughter, Poet — named after a character in a graphic novel.
Blackhorse has been one of the Navajo Nation’s most high-profile losses since the coronavirus took hold in March. The pandemic has since torn across the reservation, causing more than 2,757 infections and 88 deaths as of Friday — the same number of casualties as Arkansas, which has a population 17 times larger.
A confluence of factors leaves the Navajo susceptible to the virus: a lack of reliable access to water and electricity, the frequency of several generations of a family living together, and the prevalence of preexisting health issues, including obesity and diabetes.
Epidemics prey on these vulnerabilities. David Jones, a professor of the culture of medicine at Harvard University, called viral outbreaks “diseases of poverty, diseases of marginalization, diseases of lack of access to health care and public health.”
“Social distancing is really difficult if you have a family living in a relatively small house,” he said. “Washing your hands three times a day is really hard when you’re on a reservation where many houses have no water.”
As a child growing up in Kayenta, Ariz., Blackhorse was a tomboy who loved to hike and get her hands dirty, playing with sticks and mud. Her love of the outdoors helped her to bond with her father, who taught her to build a shed and change the brake pads on a car.
When her dad got a new engine for his 1977 Ford, Blackhorse sat in the truck to help him install it. She carried her automotive skills into adulthood and always changed the oil and replaced the headlights on her family’s truck, said her younger sister, Vanielle Blackhorse.
As she got older, Valentina started participating in pageants that required her to display a traditional Navajo or modern skill and speak fluent Diné, the Navajo language. She won her high school’s pageant in 2008-09 and later served as Miss Diné College and Miss Western Navajo.
“It is indeed big shoes to fill because you’re a role model not only for the younger generation, but for your peers and for the older generation because they expect you to carry yourself with respect and dignity,” Blackhorse said in a statement in 2011 after she was named Miss Diné College. “ … During my reign I want to bring awareness to certain aspects of life, which are health, education, involvement and our heritage.”
At one pageant, Blackhorse explained the significance behind the images and colors in the Navajo Nation’s seal. Another time, she demonstrated how to make blue corn mush, a traditional dish. She also talked about the meaning of cradleboards, protective baby carriers.
Blackhorse also was a jingle-dress dancer who performed at community powwows, like the annual Fourth of July celebration.
“She would say that being around other dancers, hearing the drums and the songs, it refreshed her in a way,” Vanielle said. “It brought joy to her.”
Blackhorse studied social behavioral science at Diné College, a tribally controlled institution, but left before graduating to help support her family. She worked at McDonald’s, Chevron and Sonic, where she met Jones, who became her boyfriend and the father of her child.
Her devotion to her family of origin never wavered, Jones said. Blackhorse helped her parents pay their bills, drove them to doctor’s appointments and did chores when her mom was tired.
Blackhorse’s sisters will remember the ways she lit up their lives: teasing them, buying her nephew a Hot Wheels-themed birthday cake and decorating the entire house for Christmas. She was the reason the family had big holiday dinners. When it came to gifts for her nephew and two nieces, Vanielle said, “You name it, she bought it.”
Blackhorse also was the family’s “feisty” enforcer of following Navajo traditions and doing the right thing.
“She wouldn’t sugarcoat anything. She would just say it to you,” Victoria said. “She would just get after you, but she meant it with love and care.”
When the coronavirus began to spread across the United States, Blackhorse consistently wore a mask and gloves and reminded her parents to do the same. But as careful as she was, she came down with covid-19 after Jones got the virus from — he thinks — his job as a detention officer with the Navajo Department of Corrections.
Jones said he urged Blackhorse to go to her parents’ house with Poet, but she refused to leave him. She brought him food and water while he stayed isolated in a room of their house. About a week later, her back and knees started to ache, and breathing became difficult.
Blackhorse’s health declined quickly the night after she tested positive for the virus, Jones said. They went to Kayenta’s health clinic, and the staff summoned a helicopter to fly her to a hospital in Flagstaff, 130 miles away.
The helicopter, Jones said, was too late.
He said the doctors told him that Blackhorse probably would not have survived, even if she had made it to Flagstaff. They said her rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that causes joint pain and stiffness, may have contributed to her death.
In hindsight, Jones said he wished Blackhorse had agreed to be admitted to the clinic earlier. She had read that covid-19 patients were isolated in health-care centers, and she worried.
“She just didn’t want to be alone,” Jones said.
The couple looked forward to teaching Poet the cultural traditions that were so important to her mom: speaking the Navajo language, wearing her hair long and participating in pageants. Victoria said the family planned to carry out Blackhorse’s wishes for her daughter.
In the short term, Jones will leave Poet with Valentina’s parents when he goes back to work at the correctional facility. He doesn’t want his daughter to get the virus, too.”
Photo: Valentina Blackhorse loved being a jingle-dress dancer at her community’s powwows. (Laverne Blackhorse)