FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Jill Biden spent the first day of a trip to the Navajo Nation listening to female tribal leaders whom she referred to as her “sister warriors," on the needs and priorities of the country's largest Native American reservation.
Biden sprinkled in phrases in Navajo that point to the holistic nature of the culture that interconnects all things, living in balance, beauty and harmony. She said she was proud to address the Navajo Nation on a day that highlights the protection of Mother Earth, a reference to Biden’s climate change agenda.
“It's on all of us together to find the path back to hoz'ho — harmony and beauty, the world as it should be,” she said Thursday beneath a red sandstone arch with a cutout that gives the tribal capital of Window Rock its name. “Despite the challenges that you faced, the Navajo Nation lives that truth again and again."
The trip was Biden’s third to the vast reservation — which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and a corner of Utah — and her inaugural visit as first lady. She vowed to work with the Navajo Nation and all tribal nations, in a recognition of their inherent sovereignty and political relationship with the United States.
During her visit to the Navajo Nation Museum where she met with the female leaders, Biden saw a copy of the 1868 treaty the tribe signed with the U.S. government that freed them from a desolate tract of land in eastern New Mexico and allowed them to return to their homeland within four mountains they hold sacred.
Navajo Nation First Lady Phefelia Nez thanked Biden for supporting a cancer treatment center in Tuba City, on the reservation’s western side, but noted it has received more patients than expected and needs to be expanded.
“That sort of breaks my heart, having so many of my own family members who have been victims of cancer,” Biden responded.
Biden last visited the reservation in 2019 where she urged Americans to contribute financially to the treatment center to address health disparities in a region where unemployment and poverty are high. She said Thursday she was surprised at the time that it was the first center of its kind on tribal land but vowed it wouldn't be the last.
Dottie Lizer, wife of Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, listed a range of issues she and Nez have been working on, including education and financial literacy, and efforts to protect Navajo children and families, cultural teachings and the tribe's language.
“It is an honor to support and work with a spiritual woman leader who shares the values of harmony, faith and compassion with each of us,” said Dottie Lizer.
President Jonathan Nez later noted that the Navajo word for compassion, “jooba’ii” sounds a lot like “Joe Biden.”
Dottie Lizer and Phefelia Nez were among a group of women who met with Biden at the library of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock. The women wore traditional crushed velvet or ribbon skirts, moccasins and jewelry made of silver and turquoise, stones sacred to the the tribe. Some wore their hair in traditional buns tied with yarn.
Others spoke about violence against women and said more resources are needed for victims. Outside, some residents who lined the streets along Biden's route to the tribal government center held photos of Indigenous women who have disappeared or been killed.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said Biden's choice to meet with women leaders first set the tone for the trip.
Later, Biden spoke to a crowd of Navajo officials and dignitaries, including Miss Navajo Shaandiin Parrish, who were socially distanced and wearing masks. The Navajo Nation Council gifted Biden a Pendleton blanket that was wrapped around her as the temperature dropped and a chill set in.
Parrish earned the title through a competition that celebrates Navajo women's role in society as caretakers, leaders and protectors. It also includes butchering a sheep and preparing traditional foods. She said she was excited for the partnerships that Biden will create in Indian Country.
“Everybody on the Navajo Nation has a deep respect for women, and her position as first lady is tremendous,” she said. “We all look up to our mothers, and she's the first lady, the mother of the U.S.”
On Friday, Biden will visit a boarding school and a nearby hospital that has been administering vaccines, both of which the tribe runs under contract with the federal government.
The trip comes as the tribe recorded just one coronavirus-related death in the past 12 days. It's also reporting far fewer daily cases than early on in the pandemic, when the reservation had one of the country's highest per-capita infection rates.
The tribe has approached reopening more cautiously than surrounding states, most recently because of coronavirus variants identified among infections. On Monday, it plans to reopen tribal parks to residents and increase capacity for businesses, gatherings and tribal casinos to 50%.
Biden noted that about half the reservation's population is fully vaccinated, roughly twice the U.S. rate. Still, residents on the Navajo Nation must wear masks and travel only for essential activity. Tribal roads are closed to visitors.
“We’re not celebrating yet,” Nez said earlier this week. “The pandemic is still here.”
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has chipped away at water, electricity and broadband needs, partly with funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. But it estimates the price tag for providing basic utilities to residents at more than $5 billion. That won't be met even with money from the latest federal relief package, which set aside $20 billion for tribal governments — marking the largest, single investment in Indian Country.
Separately, President Joe Biden has proposed increasing the budget of the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service by $2.2 billion. The agency provides primary care to more than 2 million Native Americans. It has said the funding would help address longstanding inequities among its patients.
In 2013, Jill Biden gave the commencement address at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico, where she focused her speech on community, saying: “You all have a stake in each other’s future.”
That value is what drove tribes across the country to enact strict measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and protect elders and future generations.
Fonseca is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP