By Kerry Hoffschneider
Sarah Yazzie is Cassandra Begay’s Great Grandmother. She was a farmer.
“We are storytellers and when my family talks about Sarah, they refer to her farming as a ‘Garden of Eden,’ because she grew peaches, apricots, corn and squash in the valley of my hometown on the Navajo Nation near the trading post,” Begay said.
Growing up amongst strong women in the Navajo Nation that makes up more than 17.5 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico and portions of Colorado and Utah, Begay was influenced by her Grandma Mamie, her mother Conte Begay, and their stories and traditions in action, “I come from a long line of strong, matriarchal women who know their language. My grandmother and mother are fluent in Navajo.”
Begay understands her Native language because she spent her life surrounded by her mother and grandmother’s voices, “The first 12 years of my life we had no running water or electricity. Then my mother moved all of us (six children) off the reservation because there were no jobs and violence issues that she wanted to get away from. We moved to Utah where my Aunt helped mom find a job at a turkey farm. So, my mom was able to provide for us and get us in a safer place to have more stability. That way I could focus on school too.”
Begay is a first generational student and has achieved her Associates Degree in Art, Bachelors in Sociology and is earning a Master’s Degree in Business Administration.
Hearkening her connection to food and nutrition, because of the women who shaped her love for the soil and gardening, Begay found her purpose in life, “Having lived that experience on the reservation and not having much access to healthy food and educational resources, I understood early on the inequalities. I realized our communities are marginalized and a lot of resources that are rightfully ours do not trickle down to our communities. I decided my purpose would be to close that gap in social inequality and build relationships with other people and the land itself.”
Begay’s current effort is helping to oversee the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund.
“As of September 21, there have been 10,100 positive cases on the Navajo Nation and 548 deaths attributable to COVID-19. We had some of the highest, per capita rates of COVID-19 deaths and infection rates in the country – at one point even passing New York City,” she explained.
“The Navajo and Hopi reservations are also food deserts. There are only three small grocery marts on the Hopi reservation that serve some 3,000 people. Tribal members must often drive hours to access a meaningful grocery store and sometimes encounter empty shelves to get what they need. The Navajo Nation has only 13 grocery stores serving 181,000 Navajo Tribal members. One-third of households on the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation don’t have running water and another third do not have electricity in their houses. So, this makes handwashing difficult. The Navajo have a regular unemployment rate of 50 percent and the Hopi have an approximately 60 percent unemployment rate,” Begay outlined.
“The Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund is centered around food, water, cleaning supplies, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that are part of Kinship Care Packages for Navajo and Hopi people who are immunocompromised, elderly, and struggling families most at risk for contracting COVID-19. The objective is to prevent high risk individuals from contracting COVID-19 and to flatten the curve.”
You can write a check out to: Nonprofit Fiscal Services and put “Navajo/Hopi Relief” in the subject line. Mail to 623 East 2100 South Suite B1; Salt Lake City, UT 84106 or you can donate to their Go Fund Me account at this link: www.gofundme.com/f/NHFC19Relief