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Aja in her closet making the podcast

reporting from home

Undergraduate researchers Hannah Kelly and Aja Two Crows found each other through their mutual interest in Native health during the COVID-19 Pandemic. They wanted to hear Native stories from Native voices and knew a podcast would bring these voices to life for others. As the pandemic wore on, their original investigations of health broadened to include mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Following their previous work and research in Native community resources, they set out to create Portraits of a Pandemic. Aja and Hannah are excited to bring you groundbreaking documentary reporting on telehealth in the Navajo Nation and emotional and mental health in Seattle. 


Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash


Homeless Natives did not exist before 1492. Since colonization, homelessness and surviving epidemics are just two of the battles disproportionality fought by Native communities. 

During the initial surge of the coronavirus pandemic in Seattle, Aja couldn't stop thinking about the people she’d met at The Chief Seattle Club after working there in 2019. Of the friends she’d made, some had worked for the Native-led non-profit, providing essential health and community services to homeless Natives in Seattle. Others were homeless or formerly homeless themselves. With the center’s in-person programs gone, Aja knew there might not be a way to check in on the city’s most vulnerable people. She started asking questions. How does social distancing work for people experiencing homelessness? How are people getting health news and masks? Of those who have transitional or low-income housing, what services are still missing? How are people dealing with loneliness? 

Aja discovered the answers to these questions to be stories of innovation. This innovation is organizational, seen in the nimbleness of on-the-ground care so often missing from bureaucracies. Innovation is also deeply personal. While coronavirus is both a central issue and these stories' setting, it frames a larger narrative of critical hope. The Seattle portion Portraits of a Pandemic focuses on how Native homelessness is not simply a series of unfortunate events, but an ongoing story of survival that must be heard to be understood. 


Navajo Nation
Photo by Chloé Stein on Unsplash

 Navajo Nation

In 2009, Native Americans and Alaska Natives saw death rates four times higher than all other race groups combined from the H1N1 flu. From her previous research in rural and Native healthcare, Hannah Kelley grew anxious in February 2020 anticipating coronavirus ravaging Native rural communities. In May, national headlines reported the highest death rates of any state in the Navajo Nation. Hannah wasn’t satisfied with the simplicity of these stories.  

Diving into interviews with health professionals on the reservation, Hannah searched for complications to what she saw as a “deficit framework:” news only focused on what reservations lacked. In the Navajo Nation, the weeks with the highest national death rates were seen through reports of no running water in a third of households, the absence of Diné translations for instructions on how to socially distance, the disappearing aid and groceries, and the chronic underfunding of the Indian Health Services.  

Hannah knew that while this reporting was essential to understanding the issues, hidden from headlines were the facts of how the community was successfully fighting back. Navajo Nation flattened their curve in record time and with minimal resources, and healthcare through internet and telephone, or telehealth, grew faster in Navajo Nation during the first three months of the pandemic than ever before in the previous two decades. 

In Hannah’s reporting for Portraits of a Pandemic, we hear about the work that still needs to be done in the Navajo Nation, while also discovering key health innovations on the reservation. Listen to learn the essential stories of coordination and creativity in the Navajo Nation, how the Navajo Nation protects its knowledge-keepers, and the tools needed to keep fighting.


The stories of Indigenous people during coronavirus are not a monolith. There are a multitude of experiences, of painful losses, of strategies, of community expressions, and hopes. The COVID-19 pandemic is unfortunately far from over. 

Portraits of a Pandemic starts at the broken treaties of the federal government to understand the disparities that have contributed to the undue loss of life during this pandemic, and epidemics before. Our goal is to share just some of the current stories of innovation, both structural and personal, giving us reason to believe in a critical hope for Native people so that we might discover a more complete truth about Indigenous survival and celebrate Native life.