Katherine Red Feather, a 78-year-old tribal elder on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, had listed these basic items 26 years ago in her response to a letter from Robert Young.
Young, a Seattle businessman, had been matched with Red Feather after volunteering in an adopt-a-grandparent program geared toward helping aging Native Americans.
He had been moved to volunteer in the program after seeing a front-page headline in a New Mexico newspaper bemoaning the fate of elders who were freezing to death during cold spells on tribal lands.
Young decided to visit Red Feather, who was now calling him “Grandson,” during his next business trip.
He found the loving woman snuggled around a wood stove with family members in a beat-up trailer on the reservation.
She used a propane stove to heat the beans she served the visitor and her family, but had no running water. Her family fetched water from a well and firewood from local sources.
Later in the summer, Young returned with friends to work with Red Feather’s family and neighbors in Pine Ridge to build her a proper frame home.
Inspired by this heartwarming challenge, in 1995, Young founded the Red Feather Development Group, named after Katherine and devoted to improving the quality of living across Indian Country.
Today, Red Feather partners with the Hopi and Navajo nations to develop sustainable solutions to the housing needs within their communities by implementing programs that address home weatherization and repair, providing clean heating solutions and conducting healthy housing demonstration workshops. From the non-profit’s headquarters in Flagstaff, staff and volunteers have also stepped up efforts in response to the pandemic, which has made some of the shortages on the Navajo and Hopi nations more critical, such as the lack of adequate sanitation and access to clean water. One in three homes on the two reservations does not have indoor plumbing and it is common for multiple generations to live under one roof and share water resources. Red Feather representatives say these conditions have contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19 on Native lands across the country.
“The luxury of being able to turn on a tap and instantly have access to running water is easily taken for granted,” said Joe Seidenberg, Red Feather executive director. “And in our frequent communication with our friends around the reservations during lockdown, it became apparent that there was a specific and urgent need for sanitary washing. So, we went to work to come up with a solution.” The solution was a do-it-yourself mobile hand-washing unit, designed by LavaMaex, a non-profit organization based in California. The design affords up to 500 washes with one fill and is operated by a foot pump that provides hands-free operation. To date, the Red Feather staff and 133 volunteers have assembled and distributed more than 500 hand-washing stations across the Hopi and Navajo nations. The units are designed to be exceptionally low-maintenance and easy to operate. Parts cost about $230 and can be acquired at most local hardware stores. Red Feather volunteers have come from the Flagstaff area and also from tribal communities. “Lately, we have been focusing more on conducting training workshops at Hopi and Navajo for various groups in hopes that they can carry on this work without Red Feather being directly involved,” Seidenberg said. On a windy day in late-July, Red Feather volunteers, led by Shannon Maho, the organization’s senior program coordinator, delivered two dozen finished hand-washing stations to the Hopi villages of Oraibi, Bacavi and Shungopavi atop the Hopi Mesas, located two hours northeast of Flagstaff. The village of Oraibi is the oldest continually inhabited community in North America. Despite its long history, most of the residents in Oraibi, as well as the other nearby villages, must drive five miles to the nearest regulated source to haul water back to Hopi. Unregulated wells are also a source but the water may be tainted with bacteria. “Our volunteers are essential to the success of all our programs,” said Maho, who shares both Hopi and Navajo lineage.
Oraibi Village board member Derek Davis was present to unload and learn the operation of the washing systems. “Filling and reusing water basins isn’t the cleanest way to sanitize, and these units offer a hands-free solution that will help our people stay healthy,” Davis said. “Now we hope to build these ourselves, for our people. For this, we are grateful.”
In addition to providing the washing systems, Seidenberg said Red Feather has a number of different projects, including assisting families with their heating needs that he says have been negatively impacted by the loss of coal.
“Until the closure of Kayenta coal mine, most Hopi families used coal as their primary heat source,” he said. “Now, the preferred heating source is wood. Both solid fuels have strong links to generating high levels of indoor air pollution, which the CDC and other researchers are showing makes individuals more susceptible to complications with the COVID-19 virus.”
Red Feather’s heating program includes changing out improperly installed wood and coal stove heating systems with new EPA-certified wood stoves. For families interested in removing solid fuel burning from their homes, Red Feather is installing mini-split heat pumps, an electrically powered heating and cooling system that provides free heat via the sun.
To help reduce indoor air pollution, volunteers are distributing HEPA air filters. Red Feather also uses both in-person and distance learning educational workshops that use classroom and local homes as learning laboratories to teach residents about how the home environment is tied to health and well-being.
The Red Feather operation includes Seidenberg and three program staff members based in Flagstaff, as well as one program staff member in New Mexico and another in Montana. There is also a governing board. The non-profit also reaches out to Flagstaff businesses for help, such as Rood Dancers for stove inspections and cleanings, Cozy Home for home weatherization and installations, Campbell’s Heating and Cooling for mini-split installs and Mark Crawford-Maintenance Remodeling and Construction LLC for general housing repairs. The success of Red Feather projects is intricately connected to the ties the organization has with its partner communities, said Seidenberg. “We never develop programs or services in a vacuum. Our work starts from a position of listening deeply to local needs by interacting closely with residents, local government officials from the Hopi Village and Navajo Chapters, and many other stakeholders.”
Looking forward, Red Feather goals for 2021 include moving in-person classes to remote learning platforms, developing a tool loan library, a construction materials donation program and finding more ways to help families with their housing repair needs. FBN
By Betsey Bruner, FBN