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Adopt a Native Elder

Sharing Food and Preserving Culture on the Navajo Reservation

Ash Sanders | Photos courtesy of Adopt a Native Elder Sep 12, 2018

When Linda Myers went to an event about the Navajo-Hopi land dispute 34 years ago, she didn’t expect it to alter the course of her life. But when she heard about the displacement of indigenous people on their reservation in northern Arizona, she knew she had to find a way to help.

She had no network or funding, so she turned to her skills as an artist. With $500 from selling a piece of art, she and Rose Hulligan, a Navajo activist, went to Costco and bought carts full of food. Then Hulligan made the long drive to the reservation, where she distributed the food to people in need.

The story could easily have ended there. But it didn’t. Three decades later, Myers’ Adopt a Native Elder nonprofit is making a real impact in the lives of hundreds of Navajo elders.

Rising to the Challenge

When Hulligan returned to Park City from the reservation a few weeks later, she had a turquoise ring and a story. While delivering the food she got lost in a remote area of the reservation late at night and stopped at the nearest house for directions. The woman who answered the door was in desperate need of assistance. Her car had broken down, and she and several Navajo elders she cared for had been without food or water for three days. The food and supplies were a life-sustaining gift, and the turquoise ring was a thank-you to Hulligan and Myers for their help.

Myers was touched by the gift but haunted by Hulligan’s story. “I was a single mother,” she says, without the resources to confront these problems. But she couldn’t get the image of those elders out of her mind. “There was something greater within me that said, ‘No, you actually need to go down [to the Navajo reservation]’” Myers says.

On Myers’ first trip to the reservation she didn’t have much to give, just some frying pans, coats and items she’d collected from friends. She discovered that many Navajo elders were wary of her intentions: They’d been exploited by outsiders many times, even those who were trying to help. To earn their trust, Myers went from hogan to hogan, asking what the residents needed and how she could help. The requests were startlingly basic. Some asked for a cup, others asked for a spoon.

Myers knew these needs were not unique to elders but the reservation’s harsh conditions — extreme heat, cold and isolation — hit them especially hard. “There are still a lot of elders on the reservation without electricity, cars or running water,” Myers says, “and if someone doesn’t come by to take them shopping or to the doctor, it can become a really harsh situation.” In addition, these same elders often help raise their grandchildren while their children look for work off the reservation.

Expanding the Vision

For the next few years, Myers made the trip to the reservation whenever she could raise enough supplies to fill her truck, leaving with hand-woven Navajo rugs that she sold to friends and acquaintances. She knew her efforts alone were not enough, so in 1986 she founded Adopt a Native Elder, a nonprofit dedicated to providing food, medical supplies and clothing to aging residents of the Navajo reservation. What started as a one-woman effort grew into an enduring community collaboration. Volunteers sponsor an elder, providing them with food boxes and food certificates that are delivered to the reservation. In return, elders share their traditions and culture with the volunteers.

In 2017, nearly 400 volunteers brought food, medicine, firewood and Navajo yarn to more than 570 elders between 75 and 108 years old. Myers also began organizing an annual Navajo rug show to benefit traditional artisans. Both are vital programs that Myers believes in deeply, but for her, it’s about something bigger: working alongside the Navajo people to preserve their culture. Through this collaboration, she hopes she can help them fulfill the words of a Navajo blessing prayer — to “walk in beauty.”

To adopt an elder or volunteer for ANE’s biannual food runs, visit www.anelder.org/product/Adopt-An-Elder.

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