It is crazy that in a time which demands distancing, the most vital of connections are made. Thank you, Facebook and Facebook Messenger, for without you, we may not have connected with Zoel Zohnnie, founder of the Water Warriors United—Navajo Nation COVID Relief Campaign 2020, who is now a Native Hope COVID-19 Fellow.
At our weekly team meeting on April 27, one of our team members asks if there is any way to help the Navajo and/or others in the hard hit COVID-19 areas of the Southwest—"Can we get them water somehow?”
After some discussion, I decide to contact our former Native Hope Fellow—Nikki Lowe, who lives in works in New Mexico.
This short exchange sets the wheels in motion, as is the beauty of the connective nature of Indian Country—everybody knows somebody, who knows somebody, who knows somebody…
During our next Monday morning meeting on May 4, our team visits about Zoel’s efforts and gives me the “go ahead” to contact him to see how we can help him.
Within 20 minutes of the exchange, Zoel and I are on the phone! We speak of his initiative and what he needs in terms of support. His earnest and determined attitude assure me that he is a man on a mission: “I have truck and want to give back, so I bought a 265-gallon water tank,” Zoel explains. He tells me of how he launched the water campaign on Facebook on April 30, just about a week prior.
Delivering water during COVID
Safety is a top priority for Zoel. He carries a safety bucket of supplies with him at all times. “I clean everything I use with paper towels or a rag and use clean rags every day.” He wears an industrial strength mask (disinfected frequently) and wears gloves. Additionally, he wipes down all equipment frequently with BIA police strength MicroKill wipes. He ensures ZERO CONTACT and maintains a 10-foot distance. “One grandma was so thankful [for the new barrel and water] that she was about to run up to me and shake my hand. I had to remind her in Navajo: Hold up, Grandma—no hugs!’” It is moments like this one that make all of the long hours, worth it. He knows what his actions mean to those he is assisting—the elders reaffirm it with each delivery.
Not a tough decision
Zoel’s commitment to helping others runs in his blood. It is a part of him. He and I have had numerous conversations and every time Zoel emphasizes that this isn’t about him—“I believe this God’s work, my God. When I made my mistakes..He always helped me…He has always put someone in my life who has helped me…I want to be that for others (for His glory)—I am a vessel for his work and I strongly believe that.”
A boilermaker (welder) by trade and an actor through passion, Zoel was born in Tuba City, AZ, but calls the Four Corners area home. “When I told my mom about the water campaign, she cried. ‘That is how we are raised—we were taught to be there for one another when we need to be.’” Zoel was raised by his father’s sister and is grateful she instilled this in him. He lost his father at 17 but feels his father’s presence, especially when he does work like this—delivering water to those in need throughout Navajo Nation.
Zoel has spent winters past delivering wood and coal to those in need, so this is not Zoel’s first campaign for his people of Navajo Nation. In fact, for those winter hauls, Zoel had to rent a truck and a U-Haul trailer. He mentions, “I knew that as soon as I had a truck…I would have the opportunity to give back to those who are struggling. I wanted that…once you are given more than you need—you need to remember others.”
However, the challenge before him is Navajo Nation encompasses 27,425 square miles (17 million acres) and 170,000+ people call some part of the “rez” home. This land area is larger than the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined, much of which is desert and rough terrain. This is an important fact to remember when we hear that COVID-19 has hit the Navajo Nation at a rate higher than New York per capita. We understand that a key factor may be that 30-40 percent of the people do not have access to running water. Water with which to wash their hands, to clean their homes, to drink.
Without Facebook to find those who need assistance and the water source, Zoel would quite literally be lost. He travels roads that most would never find nor dare to travel. His journey is truly the road less travelled. “The person showing me around [today] felt bad, thinking it was too far to go or too rough of terrain, but that’s what this campaign is about—people who can’t get out or shouldn’t get out, that are in remote areas, that don’t have running water, that would benefit from 1-2 barrels of water,” says Zoel in his May 14 Facebook post.
How to grow a movement
Zoel needs capacity to move the water over the vast area of Navajo Nation. He continues to raise funds for more barrels and seeks an opportunity to purchase a trailer on which to haul barrels and a larger water tank. The word spreads like COVID itself and soon Zoel finds himself in a position to expand more than two-fold.
Over the next few days, Zoel went from helping a few families a day to helping several—on March 10, he collects 29 barrels in Prescott, AZ. This monumental purchase saves him at least a week’s worth of hauling and a couple hundred dollars in shipping costs. (photo from May 10 5:41 post) Immediately, Zoel turns the savings in time and money into action by delivering from Naschitti, New Mexico to Chinle, AZ, and many places in between. The operation gains even more momentum when actress Busy Phillips joins the effort and purchases a second flatbed for the campaign and doubles the capacity of Zoel’s deliveries—May 14, just two weeks into the campaign. Now, there is a second team with Pam Arthur joining Zoel.
People who have supported Native Hope’s fellowship campaign and other campaigns can feel great about a part you play in this journey. We are inspiring hope in people, young and old. In the darkest hour, it is essential for a hero like Zoel to arrive.
Moments from the road
“As I was filling up their barrels, he was watching me the whole time from the open window to his right. He was saying, ‘Grandma can I help?’ But she kept telling him that him to stay inside, which was torture for him.
My personal policy when delivering water is that I don’t touch anything that belongs to the family, nor come from inside, with anything but the hose. I ask that all the caps be removed and that the containers be placed close together, so that I can fill them without too much spill. Then, when I’m finished and out of the way, the recipients can recap their personal containers. That being said, this little guy was very helpful in taking the lids off and lining up the barrels he’s sitting on. Then, as soon as was safely at a 10-foot distance, and he got permission, he quickly came outside and put all the caps back on!” Zoel shares with us on Facebook.
Grassroots to a full-blown movement
After Zoel purchases the second flat bed, he announces more locations including Red Rock State Park to meet elders and needy families in the area to a trip to Tuba City, AZ. His focus always on the Navajo elders. For Zoel, this campaign is personal.
“Its about bringing goodness,” he says. “On more than one occasion today, people (3) asked if I was going to come back out and pick the barrels. They were surprised. They were surprised when I told them that these [barrels] are theirs. They’ve been given to you. Thank God and the people who donated. Don’t thank me—I am just trying to give them out and help keep people safe.”
Where do we go from here
As of yesterday, Zoel and the Water Warriors United—Navajo Nation COVID Relief Campaign 2020 has two delivery units fully operational. They delivered 1,500 gallons of water to the eastern side of Navajo Nation and are set to work on Western side near Gap/Bodaway as well.
Following this journey has been a motivating experience. It has long been important to me to seek positivity in a world of negativity. Even though I have never met Zoel in person, I feel akin to his spirit. While writing this, I listened to his Facebook live posts and his May 4 post especially rang true.
“To me, this the earth pushing reset…just a little bit...I was doing everything I could to stay where I was, but I felt I needed to do something. I couldn’t be there at home with people [Navajo] feeling the way they were feeling and having to risk themselves unnecessarily when I’ve been given things by my God—things that are prayed for, things that I could lose, but for now I have these things, and to me, to be able to do the things that I can do, in ways that are safe, are what I have to for myself because that’s my faith. That’s my earth balancing my heart; my spirit; my soul.”
Zoel’s words remind me to take time during this pandemic to really look at what I have and to make decisions to do what I can do in the ways I can do them. We all have fears about this unknown enemy. It is taking a lot from us. It is changing our way of life. It is making us uncomfortable. Embrace that and move forward.
Zoel’s grassroots Navajo water campaign will continue as long as COVID-19 affects the people of the Nation. We arehappy to have played a role in Zoel's mission: Water Warriors United—Navajo Nation COVID Relief Campaign 2020. It is an uphill battle, but with a warrior like Zoel and his friends, the Navajo are gaining ground.
“Put your name in the hat…try to make your changes in your own way around you—eventually it radiates, creates better change…be the change; be the change you wish to see in the world. Old Ghandi,” Zoel urges with a smile. “Be safe, take care…"
Native Hope’s Fellowship program provides vital funds to Native Americans
to positively impact Indian Country.
Thank you, Zoel for your inspirational journey as a Water Warrior. Together, we can all do more.