Gwendena Lee Gatewood

Chairwoman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Arizona


By Claudia Sandell

June 28, 2020

When I spoke with Tribal Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood on Friday morning, she was busy organizing a mask drive. What started as a small project to distribute masks had turned into a mass effort. Now over 3,000 people wanted masks. Gwendena attributed the success of the drive to the mask’s design.


The masks, pictured above, sport the White Mountain Apache seal and a native word for “Protect yourself.” “People who previously didn’t want to wear masks now have a sense of pride, and are subliminally sharing information about protecting themselves,” the Tribal Chairwoman said. She suggested that the masks have promoted grassroots education about public health. People go to the grocery store wearing the mask. Those who know the language read the masks and then ask where they can get one. “That sends the message that wearing a mask is important for our community’s health.”

The appeal of the masks tells the story of a community whose collective struggles inspire collective solutions.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe has surpassed the Navajo Nation for the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the country. Of the 4,850 people who’ve been tested, 1,652 have tested positive and 252 results are pending.

Efforts to mitigate the health crisis have included door-to-door food deliveries, in which Gwendena and fellow community leaders participate. This weekend, they will deliver the potatoes, bag by bag, across all 20 White Mountain Apache communities, spanning 2,500 square miles. The potatoes will feed 17,300 tribal members.


“We don’t have enough food to make food boxes,” said Gwendena, raising the issue of food insecurity in her community, now exacerbated by the pandemic. Food deliveries are crucial for feeding elders living alone, and families who must remain in quarantine. “Elderly need to be fed and have appropriate nutrition, but families are told to stay home and can no longer assist their grandparents,” the Tribal Chairwoman said. Carrizo and Cibecue, two of the most isolated White Mountain Apache communities, especially rely on these deliveries as they are each an hour from the nearest grocery store. Many in those communities have also lost their jobs due to COVID-19-related business closures, adding to the stress of putting food on the table. 

Historically, the White Mountain Apache Tribe has also lacked access to clean water. The community of Carrizo is an example of a place in the United States that still lacks potable water. “There are different metals in the water, such as manganese which turns the water black,” Gwendena said. “We have been working to secure our water rights for 40 years, which includes plans for an expanded treatment plan and a 55-mile pipeline from White River to serve our tribal communities.” The pipeline would have the potential to provide clean drinking water for 100 years. Many of the White Mountain Apache communities currently depend on wells that were built in the 1990’s. That system is failing, making drinking water shortages a common occurrence.

Water and food shortages force people to travel for basic necessities, making pandemic related hygiene difficult, heightening infection rates, and also making elders, those 65 and older, even more vulnerable to other underlying conditions. Feeding all the elders is a priority, though also a challenge. “We have about 4,000 people in that age category. In order to get 4,000 food boxes, that’s a lot of food.” 


Amid the health crisis, materially-induced anxieties — lack of access to food and water, and poverty — run parallel to mental health problems that arise when families are unable to perform traditional ceremonies for the dead. “Before, people used to honor the deceased and take time to mourn with the family, and now they can’t. And we used to have wakes. And now it’s restricted; we can only have ten people at the graveside service, while social distancing,” Gwendena explained. In order to abide by the rules of social distancing, younger members of families often have to miss their grandparents’ funerals. “That’s going to affect you psychologically. It’s going to feel like you can’t say a proper goodbye,” she said. Traditional ceremonies are central to the community’s health in the long term. 

Gwendena’s masks encourage tribal members to consider health as a point of connection for their community. Individual protection translates into collective empowerment under circumstances in which people have been forced apart. The Tribal Chairwoman added, “The youth have reached out to me and they think the face masks are cool. It is reassuring that there is a high demand from the people to promote public safety." Donations of food and potable water support the community members’ physical health. They also enable families to continue to feed and honor their elders while quarantined away from them. For the White Mountain Apache, food also plays a role in nurturing traditions, family bonds and cultural longevity.