Many nonprofits have quotations, stories, and imagery that they weave together to create a beautiful tapestry communicating their culture. At Adopt-A-Native-Elder, “They bring me food and wish for me to live another day,” is one of those unofficial slogans once said by Elder Bessie Begay, from the Big Mountain area of northeastern Arizona. Bessie’s words expressed the struggle that many Navajo families endured when forced to move off their homeland because of the Hopi-Navajo Land Dispute, which ultimately resulted in 10,000 Navajo being removed from their traditional homelands. Because so much was taken from their families when they were displaced, many Elders still feel “homeless” today. In addition, families were forced to sell all their livestock, their primary source of money and food. For many, the traditional way of life continues to diminish and food stability is nonexistent without assistance from Adopt-A-Native-Elder, especially with current supply shortages and rising prices.
Adopt-A-Native-Elder is a nonprofit based in Salt Lake City that serves to help reduce extreme poverty and hardship facing traditional Elders living in the Navajo Nation (Naabeehó) Bináhásdzo). The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American territory covering about 17,544,500 acres (roughly the size of West Virginia), occupying portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. Because of the legacy of injustices, ongoing physical and mental abuses, and the systematic destruction of Native Americans, the organization has been careful to center the Navajo people’s voices to honor and respect their traditional culture and lifestyle.
While the Navajo people are resilient and rich in tradition and faith, Elders face severe hardships and deprivations that threaten their survival. Food remains the program’s core focus and Adopt-A-Native-Elder delivered over 800,000 pounds of food and supplies in 2021. Necessities include over 400 bags of Bluebird Flour, a special flour the Elders use for making their traditional fry bread. Other items delivered are medical packages with simple medicine and mobility equipment such as wheelchairs and walkers, and firewood vouchers to keep the fires burning throughout the cold winter nights. In addition to food insecurity, warmth is a real challenge in these rural areas.
Spring and fall Food Runs to the land help make it possible for the Elders to age in a place surrounded by their traditions. Many Elders do not speak English and continue to practice their healing rituals passed down from their ancestors. They have learned to live off the land and have sacred places that bring them peace to pray and reflect.
Over decades of consistently bringing supplies without taking anything in return, Adopt-A-Native-Elder has built a trusted relationship with the people. While serving the most basic needs of food, medicine, and warmth, Adopt-A-Native-Elder also strives to do what it can to heal the cultural divide. To be adopted into the program, an Elder must be 75 years old or older. As these Elders are aging, their sacred memories of challenges and triumphs are slowly fading. When they depart our earthly presence, their stories will be gone forever. The organization and its volunteers are seeking to preserve these traditions by documenting their stories.
Many Parkites look forward to the Annual Rug Show. For over 30 years it was held at Deer Valley Resorts Snow Park Lodge and then, due to Covid-19, transitioned to an online platform. While an important fundraiser for Adopt-A-Native-Elder, it also serves a much higher purpose for weavers living on the Navajo Reservation. Purchases of authentic hand-woven rugs created a marketplace for the artisans. Weavers set their prices and received 100% of the asking prices.
Elder Marie Nez from Many Farms in northeastern Arizona learned to weave by watching her mother. Growing up, sheep were both food and money to her family. By making yarn from the sheep’s wool and then weaving it into rugs, her family sold the rugs for $15 each to support themselves. Today, Elder Marie, or one of the other artisans, can sell an authentic piece for up to $1,500 during the Annual Rug Show. Traditions of the weavers’ ancestors are uniquely represented in each rug. Marie’s favorite design is the Eye Dazzler, a traditional geometric design. Donated yarn bundles come in highly requested color combinations such as Old Style (deep charcoal, sable brown, cream, gold, and oatmeal) and include enough yarn to weave a 2’ x 3’ rug. After moving the Annual Rug Show online, participation skyrocketed from 7,000 attendees to 131,000 page views. Adopt-A-Native-Elder is ecstatic to reach a larger audience providing posterity and education to more people. This year’s Rug Show theme is “Sacred Canyons,” which will be exclusively online in November.
While the organization has grown to include staff, they couldn’t do their Food Runs without the additional 300 volunteers and 200 vehicles per year. They also require ongoing volunteer assistance with food packing, warehouse duties, and packing and shipping purchased rugs. While volunteers are always welcome, unrestricted donations are also critical to the ongoing service of Adopt-A-Native-Elder. Over 81% of their funding goes directly to programs such as vouchers for food and firewood, or yarn for weavers.
Adopt-A-Native-Elder operates on donations and volunteer support. As one volunteer said, “When I go on Food Runs, I see my very best friend from two different cultures.” To learn more about Adopt-A-Native-Elder, or make a financial contribution, visit their website at AnElder.org.