Navajo Activist Fights to Preserve Culture amid COVID, Suicide Epidemic That Took Brother’s Life

When Allie Young returned to her hometown of Kirtland, New Mexico at the start of the COVID pandemic last March, the 31-year-old activist had no idea how bad things were about to get for her people, the Navajo Nation, or Diné, as they call themselves. Before long, the virus had spread among the nation of about 170,000 people, and soon, enough had tested positive that Navajo Nation became the area with the highest per capita infection rate in the United States. With elders vulnerable, and other dangerous factors at play, such as the many chronic health issues that plague residents, Young, who'd been in Los Angeles working at a nonprofit, focused her energy on helping her people, launching Protect the Sacred as a way of not only keeping them healthy, but as a means of guarding their storied culture. Here, Young explains in her own words the struggles — and the joys — of growing up Diné, and how her experiences have only enforced her desire to keep her people's traditions around for years to come.

I was living in Los Angeles, where I worked in television and most recently, at a nonprofit called Harness, but because of the pandemic, we became remote, so I decided to come home just before things got really bad last March. I've been here, in Dinétah, or Navajo land, ever since. My desire to step in comes from growing up in my community, one that has made me the strong Diné woman I am today — and wanting to protect our elders, who are the culture bearers and the fluent language speakers that we're still learning so much from.

I got a call from my friends at Indian Health Service in Shiprock, New Mexico, and they asked if I could help them develop some messaging to get out to Diné youth. I realized very early on that there was a real threat, since historically, our people, our cultures and languages, have been decimated — intentionally. And so now we're at a place in time where, in our ancestral homelands, we only make up 2 percent of the population, and we're trying to fight for the little that we have left and all that we've done to restore.

In the past 15 years, there's been a lot of work done in cultural and language revitalization, and I suspected that the pandemic would set all of that work back. That's when I said, "We have to do something. We must continue to fight for what our ancestors fought to keep alive, because they knew our connection to our languages and medicine ways meant our survival."

A friend, Julia Walsh of We Stand United, with whom I share a mutual friend in Mark Ruffalo, called me, and we talked about asking Mark to do a Facebook Live with Native youth to talk about COVID, social distancing, CDC recommendations and what it all meant, especially for our communities in Navajo Nation. Within a day, he was on board, and Protect the Sacred was launched. It just took off from there.

I went through a sort of identity crisis growing up. I was very much in touch with my culture and our traditional ceremonial ways, because we grew up that way, and my sister and I went through our Kinaaldás, which is a coming-of-age ceremony in Diné culture. But it was certainly hard growing up in a town that's just outside of the reservation and has a predominantly Mormon population.

My mom went to boarding school, where she was abused for speaking our Diné language, and my parents, who are both fluent Diné language speakers, thought it would be best to not teach us our language. They thought we'd be more successful if English was our first language. I eventually went to boarding school, too, a college preparatory school in Massachusetts that was very different from the kind of boarding school my mom attended. From there, I went to Dartmouth College, though I deferred college for a year because my younger brother killed himself in 2008, when he was 17. We were just a year and a half apart.

Our youth face teen suicide epidemics across tribal nations, and though we really don't know why, we can speculate. There are some factors that I'm aware of, especially around cultural identity and living in a border town that had tensions between Diné people and the white population. My brother, feeling that, and actually being racially profiled and bullied by some of the white police officers, wrote in his suicide note, "It's hard to stay alive when you're brown and gifted." So for me, knowing and sharing my brother's story, I try to connect with youth to relay the message that there's hope, and there's a way out of whatever negativity they're experiencing, as long as continue to fight for visibility and justice.

I remember growing up and just wanting to fit in. I spent my first year of high school knowing that it was largely the Mormon kids who were on the varsity teams, and were the popular crowd, and in elementary and middle school, my best friends were white Mormon girls. I was even baptized Mormon when I was about 8, because living in that environment, my family kind of got caught up in the assimilation process that was still at play. My parents weren't teaching us our language, but wanted us to succeed and wanted us to fit in.

But then, my parents had a falling out with the church. I remember we had some visits with the elders who would come by, and they started talking about the religion's celestial kingdom. One of the elders told my father that we would never make it into the celestial kingdom because of the color of our skin, that we were too dark. On top of that, he also told my father that we'd have to give up our Diné way of life — our ceremonies, songs and prayers. That's when my father argued with him and told them to leave, and that's when we stopped going to church. It just revealed, kind of, the way some thought about their Diné neighbors. My sister also got into a fight with a Mormon girl in high school because the girl said to her, "Well, at least I'm not the color of my poop."

Once I went away to boarding school, I started to see the bigger picture. I thought I'd have culture shock, but it was actually really good to bring me out of a whitewashed environment and into an international school where I began learning about diversity and inclusion.

Flash forward to the COVID pandemic, we're realizing what we're fighting for and why we have to fight for it, and it's really encouraged our community. My family is all vaccinated now, including my mom, who was part of the first round of folks to get vaccinated in the Navajo Nation because she works on the frontlines at Indian Health Service. In the beginning, there were hesitations about the vaccine among Diné people. There were people reminding us that in the past, the federal government used different vaccines and experimentation on communities of color. We're certainly skeptical about that, and it really came down to trust. So, we're encouraging people to take the vaccine, but also incorporate traditional practices like boiling sage, drinking it, breathing it in and reminding our people to pray with corn pollen and cedar — those practices passed down from our ancestors that have kept us alive for centuries.

I've always been passionate about working with youth, too, and Native youth specifically. I'm a believer that the youth are our future, and that we need to invest in them. I always say that Native people are innately storytellers, and I'm biased, but I feel like we're the best kinds of storytellers — we're the original storytellers. Our story has been told for far too long by non-Native people. It's 2021 and Native people are still the most underrepresented community in film, TV and across media. So now, the work going forward is amplifying and elevating Indigenous voices, and normalizing us in the mainstream. Part of that work is communicating our stories coming out of this pandemic — stories of coming together as relatives, protecting our elders and cultures, maintaining our resilience and regaining control when we're afforded the opportunities and resources we deserve.

— As told to Rachel DeSantis

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to

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