My heart breaks today

Ana Quriar

When Allie Young returned to her hometown of Kirtland, New Mexico at the start of the COVID pandemic last March, the 31-year-old activist had no idea how bad things were about to get for her people, the Navajo Nation, or Diné, as they call themselves. Before long, the virus had spread among the nation of about 170,000 people, and soon, enough had tested positive that Navajo Nation became the area with the highest per capita infection rate in the United States. With elders vulnerable, and other dangerous factors at play, such as the many chronic health issues that plague residents, Young, who'd been in Los Angeles working at a nonprofit, focused her energy on helping her people, launching Protect the Sacred as a way of not only keeping them healthy, but as a means of guarding their storied culture. Here, Young explains in her own words the struggles — and the joys — of growing up Diné, and how her experiences have only enforced her desire to keep her people's traditions around for years to come.

I was living in Los Angeles, where I worked in television and most recently, at a nonprofit called Harness, but because of the pandemic, we became remote, so I decided to come home just before things got really bad last March. I've been here, in Dinétah, or Navajo land, ever since. My desire to step in comes from growing up in my community, one that has made me the strong Diné woman I am today — and wanting to protect our elders, who are the culture bearers and the fluent language speakers that we're still learning so much from.

I got a call from my friends at Indian Health Service in Shiprock, New Mexico, and they asked if I could help them develop some messaging to get out to Diné youth. I realized very early on that there was a real threat, since historically, our people, our cultures and languages, have been decimated — intentionally. And so now we're at a place in time where, in our ancestral homelands, we only make up 2 percent of the population, and we're trying to fight for the little that we have left and all that we've done to restore.

In the past 15 years, there's been a lot of work done in cultural and language revitalization, and I suspected that the pandemic would set all of that work back. That's when I said, "We have to do something. We must continue to fight for what our ancestors fought to keep alive, because they knew our connection to our languages and medicine ways meant our survival."

A friend, Julia Walsh of We Stand United, with whom I share a mutual friend in Mark Ruffalo, called me, and we talked about asking Mark to do a Facebook Live with Native youth to talk about COVID, social distancing, CDC recommendations and what it all meant, especially for our communities in Navajo Nation. Within a day, he was on board, and Protect the Sacred was launched. It just took off from there.

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