SALT LAKE COUNTY (ABC4 News) – It may not be Christmas, but it sure looked like it Wednesday morning as dozens of volunteer pilots with Backcountry Santa made a special delivery of more than 19,000 lbs. of essential supplies to Utah’s Navajo Nation.
The collaborative effort all began through a partnership with Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief. The group was formed by Heather Tanana, who founded the Indian Law Section of the Utah State Bar Association. She is also currently a research professor with the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law.
In the past few weeks, they and other organizations such as the Utah Juvenile Justice System and Utah Division of Child and Family Services collected donations from the community that include PPE, sanitation supplies, bottle water, baby food, children’s items, non-perishable food, and more.
As of Wednesday, health officials reported 5,533 cumulative positive cases of COVID-19 with 252 confirmed deaths on the reservation that spans across parts of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. On May 18th, CNN reported Navajo Nation surpassed New York and New Jersey for the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate in the U.S.
“The infection rate right now in Navajo Nation continues to rise with the number of cases and the number of deaths. It’s true Navajo Nation has received some CARES Act funding, but it’s taking some time to implement that and they have some restrictions on how they can use that,” said Tanana.
Tanana is a Navajo tribal member and still has family living on the reservation. Her father is also a physician working on the frontlines of COVID-19 in Southern Utah’s Monument Valley. She now lives in Salt Lake City and explained how difficult it’s been watching the virus push the tribal nation to its limit. She also knows first-hand how deadly the impact of COVID-19 has been on Navajo Nation.
“It was really a sense of helplessness that we are so far away,” said Tanana. “My aunt passed away a couple weeks ago from COVID. Another partner of ours just heard today that his uncle passed away.”
That’s why she and several others decided to take matters into their own hands. After Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief gathered 19,000 lbs. worth of donations, they partnered with Backcountry Santa, a group of volunteer personal pilots to deliver the items to Navajo Nation.
Backcountry Santa was originally formed this past year by volunteer pilots Regan Richmond, Mike Huish, and Michael Wardle. Their objective is to deliver essential items via air to Navajo Nation around Christmas time to Utah Navajo Health System’s clinic in Blanding and their warehouse in Montezuma Creek.
But they decided to step in mid-year to help save hundreds of hours in transportation for Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief, who would have had to make the deliveries by car.
“It’s a five hour drive for them to do that. We can fly it there in 48 minutes from Blanding or two hours from Salt Lake, even in some of these slow backcountry planes. Some of our guys today were able to do that in just over an hour,” said Richmond.
Richmond expressed disappointment that he couldn’t be one of the pilots to fly Wednesday because of injuries sustained from an earlier bicycle accident. But he reported approximately 40 to 45 pilots showed up Wednesday morning to help deliver supplies. Some came as far as Colorado, California, and Texas. The average plane was able to transport 350 lbs. of supplies.
“I have a little bit of a bruised ego, but it was very cool to see all these excited pilots lined up, ready to go,” he said. “The folks in Navajo Nation are still very much in the heat of this pandemic and so, what I hope is this little bit that we’re contributing helps them get back to normal.”
Tanana was able to fly along with one of the pilots and witness the fruits of their labor come to life with boots on the ground in San Juan County.
“To participate today in the flights was just amazing. I am so humbled by the generosity of our partners,” Tanana said emotionally. “These are pilots who took time out of their day with their personal planes and paying for the gas on their own. This is really a grassroots effort. No one is getting paid for this.”
She went on to say, “It’s hard to get from Salt Lake to Southern Utah. There are no bus route systems, the train doesn’t go there. There’s no flights unless you have these private pilots.”
Organizers said they plan on making more deliveries in the future and will monitor the situation on the reservation. If you’re a pilot who would like to help or if you’d like to make a donation, you can visit the Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief or Backcountry Santa‘s websites for more information.
“As long as the need is still there, especially in the fall when the coverage dies down, our goal is to meet that need. We worry that in a month or two, they will still need food, water and supplies,” said Tanana.