COVID plays large part in 2020 passings
Twenty-twenty was a year of insurmountable mourning.
At the beginning of the new decade the Navajo Nation said goodbye to Navajo Code Talker Joe Vandever Sr. from Haystack, New Mexico. Vandever, who served largely in the Pacific region during his service in the U.S. military, enlisted with the Marine Corps in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 26, 1943, and was honorably discharged as corporal on Jan. 22, 1946.
Although not Navajo, another passing considered notable was that of longtime Navajo Tribal Utility Authority legal counsel Walter Wolf Jr., who oversaw the creation of NTUA over 60 years ago. January and February were the last two normal months before March came around and the Navajo Nation was hit hard by COVID-19.
From March to December nearly 800 Navajos lost their battle with the virus. It didn’t matter if a person was young or old, male or female, healthy or unhealthy, or if it had already taken another family member, COVID-19 has been ruthless.
Sisters Cheryl and Corrina Thinn were both in their 40s and after contracting the virus, they both passed away in April. In the same month well-known Alamo basketball coach Marcus Pino Sr. also lost his battle with the virus. He was a hunter and a father of five.
Valentina Blackhorse was a former Miss Western Navajo. After taking care of her partner who had caught COVID-19, the young mother started showing symptoms. She ultimately succumbed on April 30. With mask mandates and weekend lockdowns starting in April, the virus peaked a month earlier than expected on Navajo.
But even with the sliver of positive news that the virus was plateauing, COVID-19 claimed the life of Fred Thompson, the lead singer of wildly beloved and popular Navajo country band Aces Wild. Thompson wasn’t only the lead singer but also an educator. After graduating from Northern Arizona University, he came back to Navajo and taught in the Chinle Unified School District. He later taught math, art and Navajo history at Navajo Technical University.
The Navajo Nation Police has been the only department that has been working non-stop during the pandemic. As officers and staff fell ill to COVID-19, one veteran Navajo Nation Police officer, Michael Lee, succumbed to the virus and passed away in June. Lee graduated from the Navajo Law Enforcement Academy in Toyei, Arizona, in October 1990.
During his 29 years of service, Lee worked as a Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, or SORNA, officer, and worked in Window Rock for seven years at the beginning of his law enforcement career. That same month, Navajo Criminal Investigator Esther Charley, who worked with the Dilkon station, also passed away from COVID-19.
In November, the Navajo Nation lost another Navajo Code Talker, Roy Lewis Becenti.
Another tribal college educator, Herbert Benally, Ph.D., who taught at Diné College, also fell victim to COVID-19 earlier this month. Benally was a professor of Diné Language and Cultural Studies. In the Diné College press release it stated that Benally was originally from Sweetwater, Arizona. He was also a career Navajo educator and Indigenous philosopher. His nearly 50 years of research and work on Navajo spirituality and healing fundamentally shifted understandings of Indigenous healing and recovery from colonization.