Women Are Sacred Reflections: Watering Seeds of Accessibility and Centering Safety

By Tia Bahozhoni, Diné, Policy Specialist, NIWRC, and Marquel Musgrave, Nanbé Owingeh (Pueblo of Nambe), COVID TA Specialist, NIWRC

On June 26, the Women Are Sacred (WAS) conference began in Isleta Pueblo. It was the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center’s (NIWRC) first in-person WAS conference since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we returned to gathering in person, it was critical we did so with the acknowledgment and understanding that the impacts of COVID-19 still greatly affect our daily lives and communities. The actions we take now impact the future of our communities and our current and future health. 

The statistics surrounding COVID-19 support the need for our continued mitigation and education work. The risks of COVID-19 alone are not enough to understand the severity of the risk to our communities’ health. The overwhelming and emerging data on Long Covid drives our efforts to protect our communities’ health. Long Covid is not a single illness but a collection of conditions that may result from the viral infection or the inflammation it triggers throughout the body. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the syndrome can be identified four weeks after COVID-19 infection.1 While COVID-19 deaths are significantly lower than in recent years, we are in a new phase where an estimated 1 in 10 infections leads to Long Covid.2 Reinfections of COVID-19 increase the risk of Long Covid, developing diabetes, hospitalization, organ failure, disorders affecting the respiratory, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal systems, and death.3 4

According to a CDC pulse survey, cisgender women, trans people, and bisexual people are disproportionately impacted by Long Covid.

Indigenous communities have experienced disproportionately negative COVID-19 impacts along with disparities in treatment. American Indian life expectancy dropped by 6.6 years from 71.8 years in 2019 to 65.2 by the end of 2021.6 COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. from 2020-2021 and is currently the 4th leading cause of death and a leading cause of death in children.7 Adding to the loss, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander children lost caregivers at rates about 3.5 times the rate of White children, and in some states, that rate was more than ten times.8 These negative effects of COVID-19 show the need for ongoing community response and protection. 

The immense collective grief from the loss of life of our beloved family and community members is compounded when we consider the deteriorated quality of life our relatives experiencing new disabilities and chronic health issues face and imagine what our lives would have been the past three years. We must acknowledge this and create spaces and opportunities to feel and heal this collective grief. We need one another, and in creating spaces of coming together, we can all do better to create a world where we do not try to return to the old world but instead build the world anew. A world with the learnings from the core values of our teachings and respective Nations, which allow us to survive and thrive. One way to do this is to be leaders in the clean indoor air revolution.

We know COVID-19 and other viral illnesses are airborne. We also know our communities across our Nations have been impacted by climate crisis-fueled wildfires impacting the outdoor and indoor air quality. We can lead in the implementation of updating indoor air filtration and ventilation in all the spaces we congregate indoors. We are responsible to one another, our communities, and future generations to implement the tools we know to create safer, more accessible, and more equitable gathering spaces.

Therefore, in line with NIWRC’s values of safety and respect, we implemented a multi-layered approach to COVID-19 mitigation at the WAS conference, consisting of reduced attendance capacity, mask-wearing, self-monitoring practices (such as daily pre-event testing), enhanced indoor ventilation and air filtration, and monitoring of indoor air quality. We strongly advocated for participants to wear masks and participate in additional layered mitigation strategies to protect themselves and others. This prevention strategy intended to provide an equitable, accessible, and safe gathering space for all participants as a practice of community care. One key study that informed our approach showed the combination of the two HEPA air cleaners and universal masking reduced overall exposure by up to 90%.9 As testing access has reduced, we must utilize tools like wastewater monitoring to assess COVID-19’s prevalence in our local communities. We utilized Biobot Analytics (including county data) as a resource to share with participants before they traveled to provide information about the local COVID-19 statistics.10 We are grateful to all who practiced community care by engaging in our layered mitigation strategy by testing daily, wearing a mask, and doing the self-symptom assessment. 

A highlight of the efforts during WAS was how the youth in the Youth Track led by NIWRC’s Native Love program were excited to support the practice of community care by not only engaging in the Practicing Community Care by Cleaning the Indoor Air workshop and building a DIY Corsi-Rosenthal air purifier but also coming up with new innovative designs for their builds. One youth expressed this activity was their favorite from the entire Youth Track. This exemplified how young people feel called to learn more, lead, and engage in practices supporting our collective communities’ health. 

Collective health was a major focal point at WAS, and with these COVID-19 layered mitigation tools, we tried to make the conference as accessible as possible. The rise of disability due to COVID-19 health complications motivated us to review our knowledge and actions based on a disability justice framework. Disability justice was created as an extension of disability civil rights and centers on the lives of LGBTQ2S+ disabled people of color.11 Structural and historical barriers are unique to these communities, and disability justice seeks to dismantle those barriers created by colonial capitalistic systems.

Indigenous disability justice considers kinship, knowledge, and environment. In-person events are becoming more normalized, strengthening our connections and bolstering growth within communities. We must work to ensure events are accessible to all who attend. The future of our work at NIWRC will continue addressing the need for accessible spaces and education on disability justice.

We understand that substantial and sustainable change is achieved through consistent action. |

“Our ancestors were careful in their planning to consider all our relations and provided us these blueprints, as both an understanding and a practice, to caretake one another with radical love.”12 -Dr. Sandra Yellowhorse (Diné)

Learn More

To learn more and access NIWRC’s COVID-19 Resources, go to: 


6 https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsrr/vsrr023.pdf
7 https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2023-01-31-covid-19-leading-cause-death-child…
8 https://www.covidcollaborative.us/initiatives/hidden-pain
9  https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7027e1.htm 
10 https://biobot.io/data/
11 https://code.as.ucsb.edu/what-is-disability-justice/