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Remembering Valentina Blackhorse, Beloved 28-Year-Old Navajo Community Activist Who Died of COVID-19

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Image Credit: Courtesy Vanielle Blackhorse

After New York and New Jersey, the next highest number of coronavirus infections per capita in the United States is in the Navajo Nation, the largest Indigenous reservation in the country. We go to Kayenta, Arizona, to speak with Robby Jones, a member of the Navajo Nation and the partner of one of those to die from the virus: 28-year-old Valentina Blackhorse, a beloved community leader who promoted Navajo culture and left behind a daughter named Poet.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: New York has the most documented cases of COVID-19 in the country, followed by New Jersey, but we begin today’s show in the place with the third-highest number of coronavirus infections in the United States per capita: the Navajo Nation. With a population of some 350,000 in territory that spreads over 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the country. The rural community is reported having nearly 2,300 known cases of COVID-19 and 73 deaths as of Sunday. One of those to die from the coronavirus is a 28-year-old woman, Valentina Blackhorse, a beloved community leader who won multiple pageants, promoted Navajo culture and education. She leaves behind a daughter named Poet. Her sister, Vanielle Blackhorse, says Valentina had hoped to enter politics in the future. She spoke to New Mexico’s KRQE.

VANIELLE BLACKHORSE: My sister, she — she wanted to see her daughter grow up, and be there for her and encourage her, and, you know, encourage her to run in pageants, just like she did.

AMY GOODMAN: Valentina Blackhorse may have contracted the virus while caring for her partner, Robby Jones, a detention officer for the Navajo Department of Corrections, who says he could have been exposed at work. Valentina died on April 23rd, just one day after her coronavirus test came back positive.

Well, for more, we’re joined now by Robby Jones.

Robby, to begin with, our deepest condolences for the loss of your partner, Valentina.

ROBBY JONES: Thank you. Thank you about that.

AMY GOODMAN: I know you are just still reeling, for you and your daughter, your family, your whole community. Can you tell us a little about Valentina?

ROBBY JONES: Valentina, she — you can say she really loved her immediate family — her parents, her sisters, her nieces and nephews. She loved her elderly. She loved children. She was a kind and hard-working lady, and she was warmhearted. One thing she would do, she would do anything for her immediate family. She always tried to take care of them as much as she could.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Robby, could you talk a little bit about her involvement in the community, the issues and the concerns that she had about the Navajo community?

ROBBY JONES: OK. For that, she was barely getting into that. She always wanted to help out the community. Where she worked at was Department of Community Development, where she was beginning to learn how the Navajo Nation would work and how the chapter houses in each part of the Navajo Nation, how they would provide for the community. So, she was slowly learning how to be involved in that type of work. So, she was slowly getting there. So she was just an office specialist, but then she was — at that time, she was learning a lot. And she really wanted to put herself in the community. I’m pretty sure if she was still here, she would have applied for a different — not a different job, but then she would accede into something more that would help her community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And —

ROBBY JONES: But then, as — I’m sorry. Go ahead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when she became ill, could you talk a little bit about the experience that she had there, in terms — because, obviously, she died quickly after testing positive, within a day of being tested positive. Could you talk about her experience from the time she got ill ’til the time she sought treatment?

ROBBY JONES: OK. When she first got sick, it was basically a week. She started showing symptoms of being — shortness of breath, body aches, loss of taste and smell. During that time, when she was taking care of me, I guess she contracted it. So, like, I did — a little week, over — by the time I started feeling better, and that’s when she started feeling sick. And I took advantage of me recovering to take care of her. We, her parents and I, advised her to go to the clinic, but then she was afraid to go to the clinic. She didn’t want to get admitted. So, one day, she just felt horrible. She wasn’t feeling too good. So, probably the first day she got sick, four days after, that’s when I took her to our nearest clinic. And that’s when they tested her. So, and then, the next four days later, that’s when she tested positive for the COVID-19.

AMY GOODMAN: She was brought to the Kayenta clinic — is that right, Robby? And they had hoped to bring her to the hospital in Flagstaff, but she passed away before in the clinic?

ROBBY JONES: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Robby, do you think you contracted coronavirus, the coronavirus, from your work in the detention center? Where do you work?

ROBBY JONES: I believe so. I believe one of my co-workers, he had — he tested positive for COVID-19. At that time, we didn’t know that he went to get tested again, and this time it came out positive. So, a few days later, that’s when we were notified that he was tested positive for the virus.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your daughter, Poet, has she been, obviously, informed of what happened with her mother? Have you been able to be with her at all, or are you still self-isolating?

ROBBY JONES: I haven’t been with her close to a month. Since my first sign of COVID-19, I told Valentina to drop off our baby with her parents’ house. So it’s been almost a month I haven’t seen our daughter. And our daughter is only 1 year old. I haven’t actually spoke with her yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you given the proper equipment, protective gear, Robby, at work?

ROBBY JONES: During that time, the only thing that we didn’t have were masks. It was during that time where the whole United States had a huge shortage on the protection gear. So we had gloves. We had cleaning supplies to clean around the area. But the only thing we were vulnerable to was, I guess, when people cough. So, we didn’t have masks at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Robby, Valentina was trying to promote COVID awareness in the Navajo Nation, among the many things she did about promoting Navajo culture, since you are a hot spot in the United States, one of the worst affected per capita, the Navajo Nation?

ROBBY JONES: Yes, especially with her immediate family. You know, she would always tell us to wear a mask, wear gloves, make sure to disinfect everything, because she was pretty afraid. Even before the Navajo Nation got hit hard, she was pretty aware, and she just wanted her family to be safe.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how would you like the world and the community to remember Valentina?

ROBBY JONES: I would say she was a kindhearted person. She would put others before herself. If she knew someone needed help, she would help them. I know that she loved her elders and she loved her children, or the children in general, especially the people who are in need.

AMY GOODMAN: Robby, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Robby Jones, Valentina Blackhorse’s partner. Again, our deepest condolences. Robby Jones, speaking to us from the Navajo Nation, where he is a detention officer.

When we come back, we’re going to speak with two doctors who have been working on the reservation, the largest in the country, the most significant hot spot in this country per capita, third in the United States with coronavirus infection, after New York and New Jersey. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with them in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “A Woman’s Journey” by Radmilla Cody.

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