Volunteers deliver firewood before the snow hits

Longtime mutual aid group struggles as Navajo Nation government fails to spend millions in donations, according to officials

By: - November 29, 2021 6:00 am

Chizh for Cheii delivery (Photo by Wade Adakai)

GALLUP – Navajo elders who are in need of wood to heat their homes stay warm as it gets colder turn to the mutual aid effort Chizh for Cheii. Loren Anthony  founded the group 10 years ago, and the work continues to be a vital resource.

Chizh for Cheii has become a staple on Navajo. It can take as many as 10 hours for Anthony and volunteers to meet up, chop wood, load it and deliver it to where it’s needed. It’s a challenge they take on willingly and without pay. 

Loren Anthony (Photo by Wade Adakai)

They stay afloat just as any mutual aid effort does, through fundraising and volunteers. 

But early this month, Anthony put on his Istagram that November could be the last month for Chizh for Cheii, because dollars to sustain it dwindled, and donations were drying up. They needed a lot of money to sustain their distribution far and wide.

“It costs quite a bit to run Chizh for Cheii, and I think a lot of people assume we’re OK a majority of the time,” Anthony said. “That’s kind of our strong point in Chizh for Cheii but also a weakness. People think we are gritty, and we just go out there handling everything with what we have. That’s how we kind of been rolling, but people think ‘They’re fine.’ ”

How they do it

That grit is evident on Anthony’s social media documentation of their work.. He records himself and his team driving into the woods on bumpy dirt roads in a used truck they fundraised for just for Chizh for Cheii, and start chopping. They update daily of where they went and the people they helped. 

Being consistent with the transparency, Anthony also posts photos of receipts for purchases made with Chizh for Cheii funds. 

There are about 30 volunteers, and of that number, 18 of them are on the ground chopping and delivering wood. They are all certified in CPR and First Aid, and they are certified sawyers — people who saw timber. Last year, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group was able to move out 1,700 loads of wood. Right now, in the second year of the pandemic, they are at 639 loads. But they’re about to increase that, as cold weather sets in. 

The group spent $87,000 getting wood to people last year, Anthony said, “but we turned around and helped the Navajo people out with half a million dollars’ worth of mutual aid.” 

Warmth before the snow hits

After his post of the possibility that Chizh for Cheii might have to end operations at the end of November, Amy Denet Deal, founder of 4Kinship, a clothing and accessories brand, helped with crowdfunding. People donated $50,000 in order to keep Chizh for Cheii going for the rest of the season.

“Loren needed $50,000 to finish up this year for our elders, so we’ve been doing a crowdfund through our Instagram platform and working with other mutual aid organizers,” Denet Deal said. “We had to get this going, because time is of the essence. He needs to get everything delivered before the snow hits.”

Thanks for Denet Deal and 4Kinship’s initiative, Chizh For Cheii can finish its work this winter. 

Although Anthony got help from the public, he said there is one entity he knew wouldn’t assist him —  the Navajo Nation government. Not only has Anthony not asked Navajo lawmakers or any leadership for anything, they never offered this Navajo mutual aid any assistance either. 

“I knew it was never going to happen,” Anthony chuckled at the possibility that maybe the Navajo Nation would help out with funds, since Chizh for Cheii is helping the Navajo people. 

Anthony has had assistance from the Navajo Police Department and community health representatives when it comes to delivering the wood. But even so, Navajo leadership such as Council delegates and the executive branch are usually nowhere to be found. 

“Mutual aid supersedes (Navajo government) because you skip over all the ‘vote for me’ stuff,” Anthony said. “You skip over all the ‘what’s the hidden agenda.’ And I think people know that this (mutual aid) will go directly to the people who are in need.”

Loren Anthony (Photo by Wade Adakai)

Government sits on millions in donations

The Navajo Office of the Controller reported to Council delegates in an Oct. 13 memo that the Nation received millions in donations since the start of the pandemic: $2.6 million online, $5.6 million from checks and wire transfers, $1.9 million through GoFundMe. 

In total, that’s $10.4 million. 

From the same memo: $1.97 million was spent from those donations and a little over $250,000 is committed. So $6.65 million is unspent.

Navajo lawmakers said they were surprised to learn millions in donated pandemic relief hadn’t yet been spent and called for an investigation into agencies that handled COVID response: the Department of Emergency Management, the Navajo Department of Health, the COVID command center, the Division of Community Development, the Department of Justice, and the President’s Office. 

None of this is a surprise to Anthony. He said he feels bad for the people who donated to the Navajo Nation thinking they were helping by giving to a worthy cause.

“You look at those funds in there that could go to Chizh for Cheii or another organization,” he said.. “That could’ve saved a lot of lives. It could’ve saved a lot of people from travelling out and getting sick. There’s so much that money could’ve done. Unfortunately, that is our tribal government and leadership.” 

But that’s not great, Anthony added. It’s not cool to normalize this kind of thing and say, “That’s the way they are,” he said. 

It was disappointing to Denet Deal to find out about the Navajo Nation sitting on top of millions of dollars in donations, especially when mutual aid groups that help Navajo directly could use the money, she said. Because Anthony has been doing Chizh for Cheii for years now, she pointed out, he knows the people he helps well, and he takes care of them. He knows their names, where they live and their challenges, and that kind of real help needs support in order to continue.

“He knows our most vulnerable, and he takes care of them,” said Denet Deal. “ As relatives, we should all be doing that, whether it be the Navajo Nation government or other Navajo business like mine. This is who we are as Diné people.”

Even though her business is based in Albuquerque, they’ve raised over $1 million during the pandemic to help out with projects like: the Amá Dóó Ałchíní Bíghan shelter on Navajo, which was about to close; Voices of Siihasin, which provided meals for Navajo children and families; and Diné Bé’Iiná (The Navajo Lifeway), which promotes sustainable livelihoods.

“It’s really up to the community to assist those who are vulnerable at these times,” Denet Deal said. “Navajo Nation was slow to distribute. Meanwhile, you’ve got Loren and other mutual aid organizers that never stopped, because their hearts are in it. He’s doing amazing work, really hard work, and it’s up to all of us to get behind him, so he doesn’t have to worry about the funding.”

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Arlyssa Becenti
Arlyssa Becenti

Arlyssa Becenti is a Diné journalist with 10 years experience reporting on Navajo Nation. She recently placed first for Arizona Press Club’s community investigating reporting for her series on the illegal hemp and marijuana farms in Shiprock, N.M. She was also awarded Arizona Press Club’s 2020 Nina Mason Pulliam Environmental Journalism Award for community reporting. She has reported for the daily Gallup Independent and weekly Navajo Times. She is pursuing her masters in investigative journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.