Navajo arts and crafts vendors return after more than a year of no work
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the Navajo Nation, jewelry, arts, crafts and food vendors closed to help prevent the spread of the virus.
At the time, it was unknown how long the pandemic would last or how long the Navajo reservation would be on lockdown, requiring the closure, which left many vendors out of work and closing their roadside businesses.
“I still had supplies, I was getting ready to go do a show and everything cancelled,” said Marcella Yazzie, who sells arts, crafts and jewelry at the junction of Highways 89 and 160 near Tuba City, Arizona.
Now, after a long 14 months, a little bit of light has started to trickle through as tribal leaders begin to ease restrictions allowing businesses to open within specific guidelines.
On May 21, the Navajo Nation gave the green light to allow food stands, flea markets and roadside vendors to resume operations on the reservation. Yazzie said it was a breath of fresh air.
"We’re still trying to pick up, but it takes a lot of time, a lot of work," Yazzie said. "The silver went up and the turquoise has gone up. Even the gas prices have gone up and some of us, our vehicles are worn down because we haven’t been reinvesting."
She said business has been slow and travelers to feel comfortable driving through the reservation again.
“People are already embedded about the COVID and travelling. We are kind of isolated and there are not many people going through,” Yazzie said. “It was well-known throughout the whole world that we were the highest ones that had COVID and they’re probably pretty much scared of us, but vice-versa, but now we have made it into yellow status.”
Selling arts, crafts and jewelry has been a way of life for Yazzie and her family since her great-grandmother Lois Yazzie first set up a booth at the Little Colorado Gorge.
“She kept that place open for her people. She is one of our first entrepreneurs that we followed,” Yazzie said. “We make our own living just like our grandmothers and mothers who sheered sheep. They spindled and made rugs and went to the trading post – we’re doing the same thing.”
Yazzie is an entrepreneur. She operates as a vendor and also runs a homecare and emergency transport business. She said last year was a struggle for her and said she is grateful to be selling her wares at the roadside again.
“When the pandemic came on, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said. “We weren’t prepared.”
During the pandemic, Yazzie said vendors supported one another.
“We handcraft jewelry and we support one anther by buying each other’s products,” she said.
Some vendors were also able to find financial relief through the CARES Act funding.
Yazzie said she was only allowed to apply for assistance for one business and even then, the application process was time consuming and confusing.
“We never got any help from the Navajo Nation until the CARES Act came and that was late,” she said. “Right now, people are not recovered yet and they’re still keeping the parks closed — the flea market just barely opened up.”
Now that vendors are allowed, she is uncertain how they will do because of the increasing price of silver, turquoise and gas as well as the continued closure of the Navajo Nation Tribal Parks.
“The parks here on the reservation, they have a lot of policy and jurisdiction over our friends and family that set up to sell,” she said. “Right now, they’re closed and they’ve been asking the Navajo Nation to open.
Reopening Navajo Nation Tribal Parks
On June 3, the Navajo Nation Council met to approve the reopening of eight tribal parks following the Navajo Nation’s change from “Orange” to “Yellow” safety status under COVID-19 safety protocols, however, final consent was contingent upon approval from the tribal president.
Instead, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, vetoed the resolution and called for a special session to discuss reopening guidelines for the parks at 50 percent capacity.
“The health and safety of our Navajo people has been the number one priority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “Based on the data and recommendations of our public health experts, we feel that opening parks to everyone at 50 percent capacity is feasible. That will allow us to monitor the impacts of reopening parks at limited capacity and consider gradually increasing that capacity level from there.”
Nez said that by reopening through a new public health order, public health experts can continue the mask mandate for all Navajo Nation residents and visitors.
A step in the right direction
Yazzie said she believes opening the reservation for business is a step in the right direction.
“I’m really for it. I want the Navajo Nation to open all this stuff back up for us,” she said. “I would like (to have a) policy from the Navajo Nation to have PPE like hand sanitizer, masks and six-feet distance required. We can have that protection and put a sign up that says masks required.”
Yazzie said she would like travelers to return to the reservation.
“Visitors see the beautiful land of the Navajo Nation and a lot of them say, “How come all these booths are all empty? What happened? Are they coming back?” I don’t know,” she said. “I’d like for the (visitors) to be really behind us and come and visit us. We are Dine, we are "The People" and they are welcome.”
On June 18, the Navajo Department of Health issued Public Health Emergency Order No. 2021-012 lifting the Navajo Nation’s stay-at-home order and replacing it with a safer-at-home order.