When the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country and disproportionately affected indigenous reservations, Sunnie Clahchischiligi became the point person in her family to run supplies for her community in Navajo Nation.
Clahchischiligi made the frequent four-hour drives delivering food and sanitizing products from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. She saw first hand how the reservation struggled with the realities of the pandemic. She also saw how the culture of the Navajo people was lost in the reporting by non-native journalists.
At the time, the 2008 SJI alum had stepped away from her position as a sportswriter for the Navajo Times to focus on doctoral work studying rhetoric and composition at the University of New Mexico.
“I was presented an opportunity to do this kind of reporting within my community during a really difficult time,” Clahchischiligi said. “It was just one of those things where you react, and that's what I did was — react.”
According to the American Lung Association, indigenous people were more likely to contract COVID-19 and be hospitalized from it than non-Hispanic white Americans. More than 30,000 in Navajo Nation tested positive and 1,291 died on the reservation, according to the Navajo Department of Health.
Clahchischiligi, who has reported on the Navajo Nation’s COVID-19 crisis for SearchLight New Mexico, USA Today and The New York Times, had never done investigative work before the pandemic. She felt disappointed in media coverage that portrayed her community as helpless.
In her view, those stories focused on issues such as the lack of running water or food insecurity stood at the forefront of the reporting but didn’t provide context or humanization.
The Navajo’s biggest strength, she said, is community.
Clahchischiligi, 35, grew up reading newspapers at the kitchen table with her father and weaving rugs with her grandmother on the reservation. Reflecting the principles of rug weaving helped her connect narratives while writing.
“I don't learn well by just kind of listening to words,” she said. “I've got to see things and be able to envision a weaving happening.”
Clahchischiligi didn’t initially plan on to studying journalism. That changed after she took a news writing class and attended the American Indian Institute of Journalism, discovering that journalism and storytelling spoke to her the most.
The Institute, which has since disbanded, is where Bill Elsen first met Clahchischiligi in 2005.
“You could tell she was going to be good,” said Elsen, the content editor at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. “Her work has been more than impressive.”
Elsen became Clahchischiligi’s mentor when she was 19, making her the youngest candidate accepted into the Institute. The veteran Washington Post journalist of more than more than over 30 years will oftentimes guide Clahchischiligi by advising her to slow down.
“She’s an incredibly hard worker,” Elsen said. “I tease her about ‘you’re going to have a heart attack any day now.’”
For Clahchischiligi, there was no doubt she could juggle studying for her doctorate and reporting on the pandemic because she relied on community. The culture fades western family structures: She refers to her uncle as her son and her niece’s children as her grandkids.
The Nation looks out for one another as a family, and her family was suffering.
“What I'm really looking to do is shed light on some of the deeper issues that kind of plague our people in our community,” Clahchischiligi said. “Not for the sake of exposure but for the sake of healing.”
Since most of the Navajo culture is passed down through word of mouth, Clahchischiligi focused on writing for a national audience detailing the stories of her people and the intricacies of how they struggled with the pandemic. She described how the cultural context of multi-generational living and a matriarchal society affected how the virus spread without falling into poverty-stricken tropes often used to characterize reservation life.
“I’ve learned from her being able to see Native Americans; how they live, where they live through her eyes,” Elsen said.
Her research in rhetoric and her background in journalism allowed her to capture these nuances in a crucial time for the Nation. When she ‘broke up with journalism’ left journalism left journalism two years ago, she thought her time in the industry was up. The pandemic and reporting on her community, however, pulled her to her roots in more ways than one.
“I can't stop being a storyteller; it’s embedded in me,” she said. “That is something that will never change.”